The anticipation of Mindy Aloff's posts gave me a hankering for the ballet. As it happens both the New York City Ballet and The American Ballet Theater are in town right now and I had to make a choice. I went with the NYCB for a variety of reasons but mostly I was swayed by two ballets on the program, both by Balanchine. Concerto Barocco, to Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, in repetoire since 1948, always seems fresh and new and Sunday's matinee performance was no exception.
But it was Who Cares? (music by George Gershwin) that made up my mind. I saw the original production in 1970 when I was girl, and have seen it many times since. It is irresistable. (You can search YouTube for clips.)
Here's what Lincoln Kirstein writes about the original production:
Balanchine had an early opportunity to work with George Gershwin: In 1937 Gershwin asked Balanchine to come to Hollywood to work with him on Goldwyn’s Follies(released 1938), which included a Romeo and Juliet number with a mock duel between ballet-dancing Montagues and tap-dancing Capulets. Thirty-three years later, Balanchine choreographed Who Cares? to 16 songs Gershwin composed between 1924 and 1931. Balanchine used the songs not to evoke a particular era but as a basis for a dynamic that is uniquely American and, more specifically, evocative of New York City: Balanchine’s choreography brings out the exuberance of city life.
Who Cares? is both the name of a ballet in the classical idiom by George Balanchine and an old song George and Ira Gershwin wrote in 1931 for Of Thee I Sing. The dictionary says “classic” means standard, leading, belonging to the highest rank or authority. Once it applied mainly to masterpieces from Greco-Roman antiquity; now we have boxing and horse-racing classics, classic cocktail-dresses, and classic cocktails. Among classic American composers we number Stephen Foster, John Philip Sousa, and George Gershwin (1898-1937). First heard 50 years ago, the best of Gershwin songs maintain their classic freshness, like an eternal martini – dry, frank, refreshing, tailor-made, with an invisible kick from its slightest hint of citron. Nostalgia has not syruped the songs’ sentiment nor robbed them of immediate piquancy. We associate them with time past, but when well sung or played, or preferably both at once, they not only revive but transcend their epoch.
The Gershwins’ beautiful manners and high style, their instant melange of insouciance and shrewd innocence, their just estimation of the imaginative elasticity of an elite audience that they had developed, have left a body of words and music that lives unblurred by vulgar rhetoric or machine-made sentiment. To combine an intensely personal attitude with a flagrantly popular language is a feat that few popular artists manage, and it is appropriate that Balanchine has used the songs not as facile recapitulation of a lost epoch, but simply as songs or melodies for classic, undeformed, traditional academic dances, which in their equivalence of phrasing, dynamics, and emotions find their brotherly parallel.