Symphony in C

Is this ballet for you?

Go if: You are captivated by the idea of a downsized version of the 3 act classical ballet “take all the mime, settings and narrative away and just leave the difficult steps and the glorious dancing”.

Skip if: “Yes but what are they dancing about?” You are put off by dance without at least some semblance of a story.

Dream Cast

For the dancing: The Balanchine heritage companies NYCB, PNB and Miami City Ballet as they master Mr. B’s  off-their-feet style like no one else.

For the costumes: As much as we love Karinska tutus, we are very partial to Irina Press’s exquisite color-coded costumes worn by the Mariinsky.

History

This ballet was originally choreographed by George Balanchine for the Paris Opera Ballet under the name Le Palais de Cristal. Each movement corresponded to a jewel as reflected in the tutu colours: red for “Rubies”, black for “Black Diamonds”, green for “Emeralds” and white for “Pearls”, a concept which Mr. B revisited decades later in Jewels.  At that time he was a guest ballet master at POB and after being introduced to Bizet‘s Symphony in C by Stravinsky he envisioned and staged the ballet in just two weeks. Le Palais de Cristal premiered in 1947.

In 1948 Mr. B restaged the ballet for the New York City Ballet. He gave it a new name, black and white settings and costumes by Karinska and more importantly, he gave it new sections of choreography. The inspiration and idea were kept but Balanchine changed many of the petit allegro sequences as well as substantially altering the 2nd movement, presumably due to his preference for choreographing to dancers’ particular strengths. Nowadays the original Le Palais de Cristal is rarely performed: most companies dance the 1948 version created for City Ballet, although POB still have it on their repertoire and it was danced by The Tokyo Ballet in the 90′s.

Some Fun Facts

  • It is said that when Symphony in C premiered in NY, Jerome Robbins was in the audience and  immediately wrote to Balanchine asking for a job.
  • Suzanne Farrell has mentioned that Symphony in C was the first ballet she ever saw and that it made her determined to become a City Ballet ballerina.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's Symphony in C. Photo: Paul Kolnik / NYCB ©

The Structure

As with many Balanchine ballets, Symphony in C has no underlying story. It is a representation of the music by means of movement. Every single movement of Bizet’s symphony corresponds to a different choreographic scheme, with basic motifs and patterns for the corps de ballet; each led by a principal ballerina and a danseur.

  • The Allegro Vivo (aka “Turn Key“): The movement consists of energetic dancing with quick-changing off-balancing positions, petit allegro steps and plenty of turns. For the ballerina lots of pirouettes in the variation; for the danseur a tall order of beaten jumps. The ballerina only stops to catch her breath when she pauses in arabesque between this or that jump. The principals and soloists join the mini-corps towards the end and for every supported pirouette the ballerina does, the corps answer with a combination of jumps. The  finale has everyone executing a series of beaten assemblés, while the principal couple executes one last supported pirouette which goes into supported attitude devant once the music stops.

  • The Adagio (aka “Bend & Snap“): Here the music is more lyrical and sentimental, so in several portions the mini-corps frames the principal couple (think Swan Lake Act II Pas de Deux) while they dance a Pas de Deux filled with lifts, balances and extensions; there are plenty of supported penchés, including the “nosedive into knee” made famous by Suzanne Farrell. As the music picks up mid-movement, the ballerina starts her variation. The section ends with the corps framing her again while she lets herself fall into her partner’s arms.

  • Allegro Vivace (aka “Might as Well Jump”): The music becomes energetic and full of momentum. This section opens with the mini-corps - six girls and two soloist couples - grand jeté-ing across the stage. The main couple enters in a manège of grand jetés interlaced with single saut-de-basques and temps levée. They get to the middle of a triangular formation; everyone relevé-ing non-stop. The main couple fly off the wings, returning after soloist couples and corps have engaged in yet more jumping. Repeat. Leads enter for the last time, displaying bravura jumps, pirouettes and quick-footed steps, all the way back to front and then in diagonal lines. This section concludes with the corps kneeling and looking gracefully towards the audience while the ballerina is held in arabesque by her partner.

  • Allegro Vivace (aka “Let’s Do What They Just Did”): In this final movement all principal couples join the fourth couple for an over-the-top display of technical prowess. It opens with the fourth ballerina going through a sequence of turns (many pirouettes & fouett ées), small jumps and changing poses, the corps moving around her. Her partner and two male soloists enter in blazing grand jetés and it all builds up from there.

After the briefest of pauses as the fourth couple finishes their variation, all leads, soloists and corps de ballet join in. The ballet ends with all 48 dancers assemblé-ing in unison into a rousing finale; all principal ballerinas fall into their partners’ arms while soloist ballerinas are lifted in the background.

Pacific Northwest Ballet artist Laura Gilbreath and Principal Dancer Karel Cruz in Balanchine's Symphony in C. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB ©

Music

Georges Bizet (1858-1875) is said to have composed his symphony while he was a 17-year old student at the Paris Conservatory as a class assignment. The score was discovered in the Conservatory’s library in 1933 (80 years thereafter), having never been mentioned by the composer in his letters and unknown to his early biographers. One of the theories behind it was that the piece had too many similarities to Symphony No. 1 in D (1855) composed by Bizet’s own teacher Gounod. Nevertheless, Symphony in C showed how gifted Bizet was as a melodist and orchestrator.

The full piece was first performed on 26 February, 1935 in Basel, Switzerland by Felix Weingartner. Certain motifs reappear in such Bizet later works as Le pêcheurs de perles, L’Arlésienne and Don Procopio.

Essential Spotify/Ipod playlist

Symphony in C Major (also referred as Bizet’s First Symphony)

I. Allegro Vivo 10:21
II. Adagio 9:37
III. Allegro Vivace 5:55
IV. Allegro Vivace 8:43

Mini-Biography

Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Georges Bizet (Symphony No 1 in C major, 1855)

Le Palais de Cristal

Costumes & Designs: Léonor Fini
Premiere: 7 July, 1947 by the Paris Opera Ballet. Thêatre National de L’Opéra.
Cast: Lycette Darsonval, Alexandre Kalioujny (1st Mov); Roger Ritz, Tamara Toumanova (2nd Mov); Michel Renaul, Micheline Bardin (3rd Mov) and Madeleine Lafon, Max Bozzoni (4th Mov).

Symphony in C

Costumes: Barbara Karinska
Designs: Mark Stanley
Premiere: 11 October, 1948 by the New York City Ballet at NY City Center.
Cast: Maria Tallchief, Nicholas Magallanes (1st Mov); Tanaquil LeClercq, Francisco Moncion (2nd Mov), Beatrice Tompkins, Herbert Bliss (3rd Mov), Elise Reiman, John Taras (4th Mov).

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Symphony in C Notes by The George Balanchine Trust [link]
  2. Symphony in C Notes by New York City Ballet [link]
  3. Palais de Cristal. Estelle Souche’s Dance Site.  [link]
  4. Symphony in C in Paris by Alexander Meinertz. Review at danceviewtimes, October 2003. [link]
  5. D for Denmark: renewing its ties with the Balanchine Tradition, by Alastair Macaulay. Review at The New York Times, March 2009. [link]
  6. Symphonic Balanchine by Lori Ortiz. Review at ExploreDance.com, May, 2008. [link]
  7. Wikipedia entry for Georges Bizet [link]
  8. Wikipedia entry for Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C [link]
  9. Wikipedia entry for George Balanchine’s Symphony in C [link]
  10. Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition, 1954

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

9 Comments

  • August 5, 2011

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    [...] L’Arlesienne as well as Massenet’s Le Cid), paired with the Balanchine-Bizet classic combo of Symphony in C.  Choreographed by Alberto Alonso for Bolshoi star Maya Plisetskaya in the 60s, the ballet only [...]

  • [...] Ballet‘s last performance of The Little Humpbacked Horse, as well as an evening programme of Symphony in C paired with Alonso’s Carmen (but more on that later). The Little Humpbacked Horse combines a [...]

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  • February 25, 2010

    Symphony in C - Review

    [...] hand of Artistic Director Nikolaj Hübbe seems evident in the couple of performances of Symphony in C I attended last week. One only has to look at the cast sheet: whereas other troupes tend to cast [...]

  • February 12, 2010

    manhattnik

    One interesting thing about the Second Movement — it was made originally on Toumanova, who was famous for her balances. I don’t know how much the current Second Movement differs from the Palais de C’s, but when I saw Ananiashvili (a pretty good balancer herself) dance it with the Bolshoi awhile ago, I realized that there are plenty of places in the choreography for a really good balancer to go to town, which Nina did, quite happily. It was like an archeological dig, or unerasing a palimpsest. At City Ballet they don’t balance at these spots, or if they do, it’s only transitory, but that doesn’t mean the couldn’t if they wanted to — the ghost of the “Black Pearl of the Russian Ballet” still walks, uh, perches.

  • February 12, 2010

    manhattnik

    I seem to recall reading that when Symphony in C replaced Palais, it was considered a permanent thing. I know the POB did Palais recently, and could probably restore it, but after fifty-some years without Balanchine’s input, what condition could it have been in, really? I suppose I could ask around, or Google it.

  • February 11, 2010

    Linda

    Hi Eric
    Thanks for your kind words! From what I gather, indeed POB most recently danced Sym in C as everyone else does it (even with the black and white costumes), but they certainly performed Palais in the 90′s and even though I do not know how the rights are split in this case, it would sensible to assume that POB gets “a slice of the cake” given that the piece was created for them (Balanchine being under contract), and probably they would be the only ones “authorised” to perform it as it was originally staged (escapes me how Tokyo Ballet managed to dance Palais in the early 90′s).

    In the 4th movement I think I wrote assemble-ing just to make it easier for people who might be lost when one writes glissade-brisé…although I might say the speed def I’ve seen some dancers “blurring” the glissades into mere little jumps to the side probably because of the speed.

    I think that the lead girl in the 4 mov has to be a hell of a technician more than a spinner (there are dancers which have terrific turning technique but can barely deal with petit-allegro). It’s not only the spins but the combinations that are the killer. There are so many steps crammed in those brief minutes!

    Thanks for sharing those anecdotes!. Having only seen Sym in C for the first time less than 5 years ago, it is hard to compare different portrayals and I guess the first time you watch it gets imprinted in your head and any other performance has to measure up to it.

  • February 11, 2010

    manhattnik

    I love your writeups — they’re so well-done and researched.

    Is Le Palais de Cristal really still in the POB rep? I thought the Balanchine Trust made them do Symphony in C like everyone else.

    Or whoever owns Symphony in C now; Balanchine gave it to Taras, and I think Taras willed it to SAB. Maybe SAB gets the royalties but lets the Trust stage it.

    It’s funny because for years when other companies did Bizet (you know the dancers always call it Bizet, so I follow because I like sounding “in the know,” and it’s easier to type), as staged by Taras, I’d see things from the way it was done in the Seventies that just aren’t there now. Like the demi-couples in the Second Movement making the “targets” for the lead couple to “skewer” with her front leg in that split lift (nothing phallic going on there!), way back when it was more suggested than actually shown — the demi couples would gracefully let their arms drift away before the lead’s leg arrived.

    I always saw it as a glissade/brise combination they’d do in unison at the end of the 4th movement. Notice the only time Balanchine has everyone doing the same thing in unison is just before the curtain. He’s very sparing with unison, because once you’ve got everyone doing the same thing all at once, where else is there to go? It’s the climax.

    Just one thing I’d add, is that the lead girl in the 4th Movement has to be a turning demon (Tiler Peck kind of owns it now, or she did). She introduces that godawful pirouette to the knee with the working leg flicking up, out to the side, then down and behind, all at the last turn before she lands on her knee. When all four ballerinas share the stage in their line abreast, they build up to the same turn, all four at once. I just mention it because a) I’m procrastinating and b) it’s the ballet’s real “white knuckle” movement. I’ve seen an off-kilter ballerina almost take out one or two others, and I remember Ansanelli, a terrific turner, would have trouble with the finish on her knee, having to push herself up from leaning on the floor more than once.

    About ten or eleven years ago (damn, I’m old), it was the opening night of a season (fall? fall gala?) at the State Theater. They were doing Bizet, and Nikolaj Hübbe was doing Fourth Movement (I think — I could be wrong) with Yvonne Borree. Hübbe blew a landing from a double tours, and hobbled offstage, leaving poor Yvonne (one of many times it seemed her first name really was “Poor” and her middle Yvonne) to finish up by herself.

    It wasn’t as dramatic as the famous time twenty years earlier (now I really feel old) when Ricky Weiss blew out his Achilles Tendon in Ballo and Merrill Ashley had to finish it all by herself (Ashley had more, and harder, stuff to get through without a partner), but it was something you don’t see every day.

    Nikolaj was back dancing a couple of days later as if nothing had happened, and there was a lot of scuttlebutt that he’d faked being injured out of embarrassment at having blown the double tour. I have a hard time believing it, even now, but this was back in the day when Nikolaj and Sebastien Marcovicci seemed to be in a competition to see who could cause the infamously high-strung Borree to lose it the quickest when partnering her. It’s hard to beat vanishing in the middle of a performance.

    I seem to recall I should be writing about Sleeping Beauty right now..