The compositional genius of George Balanchine was like that of a prism refracting music into choreographic events of high-stakes dancing, tempered with wit, poetry, and limitless invention. His ballets never merely sit atop the rhythmic and melodic qualities of a musical score, but rather they bloom from inside its deepest resonance.
Within the treasure chest of Balanchine’s great works, Concerto Barocco is a masterwork among masterworks. In its rigor and spirit, it is the very definition of neo-classicism in the art of ballet. Premiered by the short-lived American Ballet Caravan for its historic tour of Latin America in 1941, it entered the repertory of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1945 and was recognized from the first as a definitive masterpiece. At the premiere of New York City Ballet on October 11, 1948, Concerto Barocco opened the program, heralding the birth of a ballet company like no other in the world, with a legacy of artistic creativity continuing to this day. Seventy-five years later, Concerto Barocco has never left the Company’s repertory, and it opens NYCB’s 2023 Spring Season.
Set to J.S. Bach’s monumental Concerto for Two Violins in DMinor, the ballet is a collaboration across more than two centuries, two geniuses entwined. Concerto Barocco does not follow the score’s three movements to the letter, but rather assembles a parallel world, honoring the two solo violins with two dynamic ballerinas (one of whom is replaced by a male consort for the internal movement) showcased within a vivid framework of eight essential dancers in the ensemble.
Balanchine was famously reluctant to explain his work, but the ballet itself holds clues to its inspiration. As a man of deep personal faith, Balanchine was no doubt drawn to the score not only for its staggering beauty and precision but also for Bach’s kindred spirituality. Balanchine was also in this period increasingly enamored of jazz, and everywhere rhythmic syncopations and the bending of classical form infuse his astonishing invention and confirm this influence. The layering of classical vocabulary, baroque ornamentation, and the breezy freedom of jazz all combine in a unique synthesis. Rich and complex in detail yet at each moment harmonious and transparent, Concerto Barocco is a triumph of legibility.
The only subject matter is Bach’s masterful score. The dazzling Vivace flies, the sublime Largo floats, and the concluding Allegro races. In the Vivace, against the brilliant kinetic architecture of the ensemble, two lead ballerinas, perilously close in musical and spatial proximity, mirror the bows of the solo violins in the pit, engaged in conversation and confrontation.
In the central Largo movement, the mood shifts into a spell-binding world, with the ballerina alternately leading and following her consort through a constantly evolving poetic landscape. Everything is measured yet feels gently spontaneous. As the ballerina and her consort exit in formal révérence, the spell lifts, and the final Allegro opens with the ensemble carving space at an even higher level of freedom and energy.
Concerto Barocco is a feast. Audiences are exhilarated, enlightened, moved, entertained—the full complement of experience possible in the theater. For the leading dancers, and the eight dancers of the ensemble who never leave the stage, it is a divine effort in musicality, exactitude, and stamina. The esprit de corpsis palpable and captivating. As we absorb the unbroken string of musical and visual invention, we savor the pure pleasure of sharing this earthly moment.
The New York City Ballet will present Concerto Barocco April 18 to May 5.
James Sutton is a former Associate Professor of Dance at Tisch School of the Arts/NYU and currently a company teacher/choreographer with New York Theatre Ballet.