George Balanchine mollifying a temperamental ballet dancer
If there’s one thing New York City lacks nowadays, it’s ballets by major composers with elephants in them….
Cast your mind back more than seventy years ago. It’s Thursday, April 9, 1942. The country is at war. You’re in New York, and you have a free evening at your disposal. What to do?
Here are a few suggestions. If you’d like to see a movie, there’s a brand new comedy called My Favorite Blonde starring that wonderful young comedian Bob Hope. But perhaps you’re in the mood for live performance. Let’s see…. At the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street you can catch the new Cole Porter musical Let’s Face It! starring Danny Kaye and Eve Arden, or over at the Majestic Theatre a block down on 44th, there’s always George Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess.
Or wait—what am I thinking!? There’s no way you’re not going to want to attend the world premiere of the elephant polka choreographed by George Balanchine and composed by Igor Stravinsky, right? That happens tonight at Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th, let’s get a move on before it sells out! (Yes, that’s where MSG was located between 1925 and 1968.)
This actually happened. The “father of American ballet” and arguably the most innovative composer of the pre-WW2 period really did partner up to write a performance for fifty elephants (with fifty ballerinas on top of them) for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. The resultant work was called “Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant.” The elephants, all fifty of them, wore pink tutus.
Not too surprisingly, the crowd loved it.
Balanchine and Stravinsky in 1957, possibly discussing a tarantella arranged for panda bears.
According to Stephen Walsh’s entertaining account in Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971, here’s how it all went down:
[H]e was telephoned from New York by Balanchine, who had been approached by Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus to choreograph a polka for the circus elephants, and wanted Stravinsky to compose the music. Stravinsky told him that he could not write even a short piece before March. . . . All the same he certainly tinkered with the idea long before that. He noticed that by an odd coincidence there were polka rhythms everywhere in the Danses concertantes, and at about Christmastime he started sketching ideas for the elephant piece while still working on the ending of the Danses. Then, as soon as that work was finished, he rapidly composed the Circus Polka as a piano solo and completed the draft score by the 5th of February. The point about this, for him, slightly unusual way of working was that Ringling would need a score for a circus band, and for the first time in his life Stravinsky did not feel equal to the task. So he approached the best-known Hollywood arranger of the day, Robert Russell Bennett, and Bennett recommended a young composer called David Raskin—a pupil of Schoenberg, as it turned out, and already an experienced filmwriter—who duly orchestrated the polka for the bizarre combination of wind and percussion instruments (including Hammond organ) that Ringling had assembled for their circus performances.
As a piece of barefaced opportunism, the Circus Polka was hard to beat. A few years later Stravinsky gratefully accepted a Canadian interviewer’s suggestion that the piece was a musical equivalent of the circus paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, but at the time he was mainly concerned to write it as quickly as possible for the biggest fee Balanchine could get him. Later still, he reconstructed the original phone conversation in terms of an imaginary aesthetic discrimination. “I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me, a polka perhaps,” Balanchine is supposed to have said. “For whom?” “For some elephants.” “How old?” “Very young.” (After a pause) “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.” As for the music, the piece galumphs amusingly enough through vestiges of rhythmic ideas from the Danses concertantes reimagined for pachyderms, with an unexpected nod at one point toward Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and ending with a heavily underlined and quotation-marked parody of the same Schubert march that he had merely hinted at in the Janssen score.
In fact the ballet—which Stravinsky never saw—was danced, when the circus opened at New York’s Madison Square Garden on the 9th of April, by fifty elephants in pink tutus, all apparently of mature age, like the fifty girls who sat atop them. At their head, lovely Vera Zorina rode in on Old Modoc, the chief and oldest elephant.
As carefully as if La Zorina were spun glass—which she is!—
the giant deposited her in the center of the forest of elephants,
and when she had completed her exquisite pirouetting upon
the sawdust picked her up and carried her away. But not
before she had handed [Modoc] a huge bunch of American
Beauties, which he promptly coiled up in his trunk like
a commuter filing his copy of The New York Sun under
his arm to read after dinner.
Fortunately there was no stampede except at the box office, and though the Ringlings never revived the piece after the first season, the publicity it attracted served them well until, after less than two months, the band was paid off because of a pay dispute, and the circus continued with gramophone recordings, which of course precluded the Stravinsky ballet.
Here’s some of the music:
And here’s a brief documentary clip about the elephant ballet, which is still pretty diverting even though it’s entirely in Russian: