This article uncovers an unrealized “Bach Ballet” by choreographer George Balanchine previously unexamined by scholars of music or dance. Inspired by tap dancer Paul Draper and conceived of by Balanchine’s patron Lincoln Kirstein, this work is probably an early inspiration for the choreographer’s now iconic ballet Concerto Barocco (1941, set to J. S. Bach’s D-minor concerto for two violins, BWV 1043). This “Bach Ballet” provides an occasion to reevaluate the aesthetic and institutional stakes of Balanchine’s better-known endeavor from the same period: his well-regarded dances for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's musical comedy On Your Toes, in which the worlds of classical music and ballet collide with popular music and dance. New insights into the dramaturgical function and reception of the dances in On Your Toes offer a way to revisit the show’s status as an early exemplar of “integrated” musical comedy and to understand the musical’s engagement with the phenomenon of Russian ballet in New Deal America. This essay analyzes the musical’s three dances—the Princess Zenobia ballet, the “On Your Toes” number, and the concluding Slaughter on Tenth Avenue—as an allegory of Balanchine’s Americanization as a choreographer. This complex of projects provides a fresh perspective on how Balanchine’s personal contact with a range of dancers (white and African-American, tap and ballet performers) affected his development as a choreographer and in the process helped realize, if inadvertently, the erstwhile goal of Balanchine and Kirstein’s ballet enterprise: to reinvent the art form in a native idiom.
Balanchine’s “Bach Ballet” and the Dances of Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes
James Steichen holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Princeton University. His research has been supported by a Mellon-ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, a Howard D. Rothschild Fellowship (Houghton Library, Harvard University), and a Virgil Thomson Fellowship (Society for American Music). From 2014 to 2017 he taught at Princeton University, Columbia University, and Stanford University; he now works as Director of Individual Gifts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His book, Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
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James Steichen; Balanchine’s “Bach Ballet” and the Dances of Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes. Journal of Musicology 1 April 2018; 35 (2): 267–293. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2018.35.2.267
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