Principal Artist Ty King-Wall talks about the challenges and joys of dancing George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, part of our 20:21 program.
George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky are one of history’s great creative partnerships – can you tell us a little about that?
Well, the working relationship of Balanchine and Stravinsky was enduring, and prolific! They were both Russian, they worked together at the Ballet Russes on Apollo Musagéte in 1928, and both emigrated to America (Balanchine to New York in 1934, Stravinsky to Los Angeles in 1940). Balanchine established New York City Ballet in 1948, and their collaborations continued thereafter. Balanchine used Stravinsky’s music for many of his ballets, notably Orpheus, The Firebird, Agon, “Rubies” from the ballet Jewels, and of course Symphony in Three Movements! Both had a considerable understanding of their counterpart’s craft, with Balanchine being very musically literate and Stravinsky watching ballet from an early age. They must have had great mutual admiration and respect for one another’s work to have maintained such a long-standing partnership and friendship.
Symphony in Three Movements was written between 1942 and 1945, compiled largely from music Stravinsky had written for film scores that had gone unused. The first movement was written for a documentary on China, the second movement for the film adaptation of Franz Werfel’s The Song of Bernadette. The third movement was apparently inspired by newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers, and it’s unsurprising that there was a military influence on this work, given that it was written during World War II. It wasn’t until 1972 that Balanchine finally set a ballet to this symphony; it was one of several works he choreographed for the Stravinsky Festival, which he curated to honour the composer’s life after Stravinsky passed away in 1971.
What is Stravinsky’s score like to dance to? How does the music make you feel when you dance?
I wouldn’t dare to presume that I know the intricacies of the score: our Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon and our Pianist Duncan Salton (who has been playing the score for our rehearsals) would be much better placed to answer that! However, I can tell you what it’s like to dance to: hard, and confusing! I’ve never been much of a “counter” when I dance, I prefer to listen to the melody and take my cues from the highlights I hear in that. For this ballet, that’s impossible: we do a lot of dancing together, or in canon, so you need to be really precise! For example, there is a section in the third movement, the Fugue, where the three principal men dance together. We count it in tens, but the first four counts of the first two tens are in silence! All three of us then do the same piece of choreography, but in a two-count canon, and all facing a different direction! That’s a little taste of what we’re up against. It took a lot of rehearsal to come to grips with it. Apparently when it was first choreographed the dancers struggled with the score too, so that makes me feel a little better!
What type of music inspires you to perform?
We’re lucky as dancers in that we get to listen to classical music all day when we’re at work: at the moment it’s Stravinsky, Glass and Tchaikovsky. I guess as a result, my appetite for classical is well and truly satiated in the studio, so the music I tend to listen to in my own time is pretty far removed from that! I listen to a fair bit of alternative, progressive rock and post punk; they’re probably my go-to genres.Ty King-Wall and artists of The Australian Ballet rehearsing George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photography Kate Longley
Is there a certain type of music you listen to right before going on stage?
It really depends on how I’m feeling at the time. If I’m anxious or nervous, I’ll tend to listen to something quieter, slower tempo, to calm myself down. If it’s been a big week and I’m tired, I’ll be looking for something more up-beat, with a bit of energy to get me through!Ty King-Wall rehearsing George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photography Kate Longley