Scotch Symphony stands alone among George Balanchine’s countless productions. In most of his works he strove not to divert the audience’s attention from the actual dance with plots, elaborate costumes or sets, though here Balanchine dressed his dancers in kilts, hose and tartan berets, a picturesque romantic landscape serving as the backdrop. The choreographer created this ballet in 1952 after returning from the Edinburgh Festival, inspired by the local colour and theatrical flavour of Scottish folk parades. Scotland plunged the ballet-master in recollections of the early ballet La Sylphide, the action of which unfolds in this famously romantic nation, and he resolved to bring back to the stage the atmosphere of this masterpiece of romantic ballet, the first ever homily to female classical dance so admired by Balanchine. Balanchine brought to life the poetry of romanticism with its ethereal sylphs in airy tunics against a background of richly coloured Scottish attire to music by another romantic – Felix Mendelssohn. Apropos, the composer, too, had been inspired to write his Third Symphony, the musical basis of the ballet, following a visit to Scotland. The impetuous tempi of the wind instruments and the scherzo that opens the ballet depict scenes of folk merriment and carefree skirls of the bagpipes; the meditative refrain theme of the violins in the lyrical movement plunges the audience into the melancholy gloom of ancient legends and traditions of this northern nation. Immersed in this entourage of romanticism and in this combination of dance and music so natural for him, Balanchine remained totally confident in his own self. There is no storytelling with various peripeteia – rather there are merely prominent hints at the fact that the protagonists belong to different worlds – the physical and the fantastical. The virtuoso structure of the choreographic themes, the sparkle of fantasy in combination with elements of classical dance and choreographic allusions to masterpieces of romanticist masterpieces such as Giselle and La Sylphide are all strung together with the bead-like quality of the lifts and the songful flight of the adagios. Moreover, as in many of Balanchine’s ballets, the dance portraits of the ballerinas formed the choreographic narrative of Scotch Symphony. Balanchine created the solo in the first movement for Patricia Wilde, a caricature dancer who performed miracles of pointe technique and comet-like smaller movements. Maria Tallchief, another of the choreographer’s favourites, on seeing the start of the production (if the ballerina’s memories are to be believed) gave a passionate sigh as she hoped that this new ballet was for her. And then, in the second movement, Balanchine transposed his attention to her and was so enamoured with the airy and broad dance of Tallchief who experienced no technical difficulties at all that in the finale he actually created nothing whatsoever for Wilde. Scotch Symphony was the first ballet by George Balanchine to enter the repertoire of the Mariinsky (then still the Kirov) Theatre. As far back as 1989 the choreographer’s favourite dancer Suzanne Farrell succeeded in making the Leningrad dancers produce Balanchine’s speed, precision of phrasing and unusually active use of the feet. Now, her one-time pupils are coaches of the present, teaching today’s performers the “patter” of the complex combinations of leaps and the intimate slowness of the elegiac passages “to dance the music”.
World premiere: 11 November 1952, New York City Ballet, City Center of Music and Drama, New York
Premiere at the Kirov Theatre of Opera and Ballet: 21 February 1989, Leningrad
Premiere at the Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre: 24 March 2017, Vladivostok
Running time: 25 minutes
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