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‘Concerto Barocco': A dancer’s life’s work in one ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet founding artistic director Francia Russell with company dancers rehearsing Concerto Barocco, choreography by George Balanchine © New York City Ballet. Credit: Photo: Lindsay Thomas

“Ballet is woman,” choreographer George Balanchine is famously quoted as saying. None of his ballets embodies that sentiment more than "Concerto Barocco."

Over the years, dance critics have called Balanchine’s "Concerto Barocco" “spiritual perfection,” “among the greatest of ballets” and a ballet where Balanchine “found his true self.” Today, more than 70 years after its creation, the work continues to astonish with its architectural clarity, pristine female beauty and ordered form.

Set to some of Bach’s most sublime music — his "Double Violin Concerto in B Minor" — "Concerto Barocco" has become an icon of Balanchine’s spare, neoclassical style. It has no plot, no characters and no pretext of any sort. What it does have is some of Balanchine’s most extraordinary steps, a complete marriage of the music and the movement and a reliance on ensemble dancing.

Balanchine always identified himself as a musician first and foremost and "Concerto Barocco" is among his most stunning efforts to allow us to, in his own words, “see the music and hear the dance.”

In this groundbreaking ballet, Balanchine brings Bach’s contrapuntal style — two or more melodic lines weaving in and out of each other — visually and kinetically alive. In the score, the two violins interact with the orchestra and each other; Balanchine’s ballet reflects that complexity, with two ballerinas dancing the “violin” parts, moving in and out of the corps’ formations, sometimes stepping into the ensemble and sometimes out of it. The choreography isn’t a literal reproduction of the score, but rather seems to be in conversation with it.

There is a male dancer in the middle section in addition to the two female soloists, but more than anything, this is an ensemble work that elevates the female corps to a level unusual in ballet. Their steps are as difficult as those of the soloists and, unlike the leads, the eight female corps dancers are on stage for the ballet’s full 22 minutes. Their choreography is so rigorous that PNB’s corps goes through a pair of pointe shoes at every rehearsal and every performance. 

“It’s like being shot out of a cannon,” explains corps member Jessica Anspach, who first danced "Concerto Barocco" in 2005 and appears in one of four casts PNB is offering this time around. “The physical challenge almost usurped any joy I might have felt [that first time]. But every time I perform it I progress and feel a personal sense of achievement. Very few other Balanchine ballets get you into shape like this.”

Margaret Mullin, who is dancing "Concerto Barocco" for the first time this year, admits she was terrified to learn the ballet. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you first start but Francia [Russell who is staging PNB’s production] was so encouraging. She told us, ‘Just remember, you are beautiful young women,’ and that made us rise to the occasion.”

Apart from the stamina that "Concerto Barocco" demands, the corps’ choreography is among the most difficult that Balanchine ever required of them. Their hops on pointe, daisy-chain intertwinings and split-second timing require extreme precision and the ability to move in complete unison.

“There’s really no other ballet like it where all eight of us are like the other principal, so that we’re not eight individuals, but eight collectively,” says Mullin.

Anspach agrees. “You breathe together, you become one. It’s unlike anything else that I’ve ever experienced. And nobody is out there trying to be the star. If we do that, the piece will fall apart. The star is our oneness.”

One of the greatest challenges of "Concerto Barocco" is that it is so precisely constructed to the music, there’s no room for error. The steps are clipped and if the dancers are off by even a split-second, the beauty is disturbed. The corps must have perfectly turned-out legs and flashing feet, all moving in the exact same way at precisely the same moment.

Anspach and Mullin credit Russell with helping them relax enough to do the movement properly and to feel the joy in the steps that Balanchine created in "Concerto Barocco." “We would all be so tense when we started,” explains Mullin, “but Francia would stop the music, tell everybody to relax and start over. That freed us to do the movement more clearly and more precisely.”

For both Mullin and Anspach, dancing the corps roles in "Concerto Barocco" holds special pleasure because of, not despite, its challenges. “I can’t think of anything comparable,” says Mullins. “The two principal women join us and we are the women who are holding this piece down. ["Concerto Barocco"] is everything you’ve ever worked for — the mastery and the celebration. It feels like your life’s work in one ballet.”

Anspach concurs. “The first moment is an absolute joy, the steps and music combined. [At the end of each performance] the curtain goes down and we all shout with joy with that sense that ‘We did it!’ You don’t feel that way after every ballet."

If you go: PNB presents "Concerto Barocco" as part of its "Modern Masterpieces" showcase, Mar 15 – 24th. Learn more and buy tickets here.  

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