Mathematical Balanchine

February 4, 2009

Some nights the numbers comes out like stars—especially if you’re sitting in the mezzanine and can see patterns. I’ve seen Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto before, but I never grasped the math like I did last night while sitting in the first ring. Each of the four soloists enters with an entourage of four dancers. You never see a big corps; it’s like every star has her or his own constellation. Four leaders, each with four followers. Four tight groups of four, and one spread-out group of four. Five groups of four, or four groups of five. You can mediate on this throughout the piece. They stride, they twist, they do little dainty do-see-dos, all in groups of two or four.

In La Valse, naturally the unit changes to three. It starts with three women in their limpid Dior best. Later a man partners three women at once (shades of Apollo). There’s a corps of 24 (divisible by 3), and of course the timing is in 3/4. And the woman in white (Janie Taylor) is caught in a triangle between her lover and the death figure.

La Valse, PC Paul Kolnik

I don’t mean that the math eclipses the dancing. It’s just one layer of the experience. Last night Wendy Whelan was as vibrant and playful as ever (she once told me that Violin is her favorite Balanchine ballet). Robert Fairchild took command, infusing the ballet with energy, muscle, and sharpness. And in La Valse, Janie Taylor was extravagant and touching as the young woman overtaken (seduced?) by death.

Many years ago, I would go to my college’s music library and absorb myself in Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat. I loved counting out the measures; it seemed like each measure had a different number. If you’re number-obsessed, you can watch Balanchine’s work that way too. It’s always satisfying. Balanchine famously said, If you don’t like the dancing, you can close your eyes and listen to the music. Well I say, whether you like the dancing or not, you can keep your eyes open and count the math.

I’ve only covered two ballets here. Tell me your favorite Balanchine numbers at [email protected].