- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

By Charles M. Joseph
Yale University Press, $40, 440 pages, illus.

"Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention" to anyone with even a glancing interest in music and dance in the 20th century, the title will sound irresistible. As Igor Stravinsky was a giant among composers, George Balanchine was a giant among choreographers. From "Apollo" (1928) to "Agon" (1957), from "Ballet of the Elephants" (for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, 1942) to "Symphony of Psalms" (1972), their collaborations rank with the peak accomplishments of their creative lives.
But by page 7 (at the latest), the cat is out of the bag. "Balanchine intuitively understood the psychology of information theory," Charles M. Joseph announces. For neither the first time nor the last, he has it all backwards. If information theory can give us a handle on Balanchine's practice, well and good. But giving the choreographer points for an intuitive grasp of its principles avant la lettre? One might as well suppose that gravity only took effect once Newton did the math. (Yet, the apocryphal apple did drop on his head.)
Beneath all the verbiage, Mr. Joseph (every inch a professor, on the music faculty of Skidmore College) actually has something very simple to say. Stravinsky's concept of beauty centered not on emotion or "expression" but rather on the very nuts and bolts of music: rhythm, pitch, harmony. His innovations, often triggered by a meticulous technical analysis of ancient poetic and musical sources, were of a kind only a highly trained musician could appreciate. Balanchine, probably uniquely among choreographers, actually possessed the requisite technical knowledge. And he made it his mission to project Stravinsky's musical substance in the medium of dance.
To add weight to this argument, Mr. Joseph has spoken to what seem like hundreds of people (dancers, associates) and sifted through what actually were thousands of documents in archives (scores, letters, reviews). It is not in dispute.
Mr. Joseph makes a point of advancing on many fronts. Through anecdotal detail, he paints a dogged double portrait. Stravinsky comes off as crochety and tetchy, a control freak with as sharp a pencil for commercial calculations as for note counts. (He also kept enemy files worthy of the Nixon White House.) Balanchine, by contrast, is shown as defer-ential, generous, protective.
The technical analyses of scores and ballets conjure up a pair of fastidious craftsmen. Mr. Joseph excerpts old reviews, pinning a black mustache on Stravinsky and Balanchine's early detractors and passing out roses to those who got it right. He compiles many stories, thrice told or forgotten, from the lives of both men, and corrects the historical record in ways only a pedant could care about.
Published by the Yale University Press, "Stravinsky and Balanchine" comes with the typical endorsements, one academician's blurb citing Mr. Joseph for "exemplary clarity" describing the book as "highly original, enjoyable to read, and genuinely interdisciplinary." Interdisciplinary, yes. (the author pats himself on the back for that on the "Acknowledgments" page.) But apart from musicology and history, the disciplines in which he dabbles tend to be rather soft. Of physics, in particular, he has no clue a crippling deficit for an author who presumes to anatomize space and time.
Clarity? Please. The writing throughout bristles with infelicities, barbarisms and useless coinages, not to speak of the tortured syntax. I open the book at random: "Diaghilev provided the first focal point by which both artists came to see and understand their differentness in the most subtle ways but still as a critical identification of their individualism."
In the glass house of the academy, where decent English seems even more endangered than in the so-called real world, perhaps such nonsense passes for stylish with "peers" wise enough not to throw stones. (Where's the harm if one can even tell the difference in touting a tin ear as a silver tongue? Call it insurance against the day when the shoe is on the other foot. Judge not, lest ye be judged.)
Content? Ruthlessly compressed and skillfully presented, the essential material here would have made a respectable journal article. But as any fellow academic would understand, no scholar can burn 10 years of research in 20 pages.
He must birth a book. Three cheers for Mr. Joseph, who after a gestation of a decade or so has produced (gasp) twins. The biography "Stravinsky Inside Out," published by Yale University Press in 2001 to fine reviews, must have been the alpha.
Despite its heft, the beta "Stravinsky and Balanchine" is puffy and insubstantial. The promised insights into the genetic linkages between Stravinsky's innovations and Balanchine's elaboration get lost in infinite repetitious minutiae, never solidifying into synthesis. What is memorable comes in the quotes. Martha Graham on watching Balanchine at work: "It was like watching light pass through a prism. The music passes through him, and in the same natural yet marvelous way that a prism refracts light, he refracts music into dance." But this is poetry, not explication.
Mr. Joseph drops, like a brick, the cliche of seeing the music and hearing the dance. Though apparently unaware that any association between musical gesture and physical gesture is inherently arbitrary, he is not so simplistic as to posit any one-to-one correspondence. And indeed, the dances of any capable choreographer wed steps to music in ways perceptive viewers see as mutually illuminating. Balanchine's ballets possess this quality to an exceptional degree. But do his ballets to Stravinsky differ in kind (or even in degree) from those set to scores by J.S. Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or Felix Mendelssohn, Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, or Charles Ives, or by his other great love, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky?
My answer to that question would be a simple no. According to Mr. Joseph, something unique is going on so much so, he claims, that only Balanchine's choreography has tuned his ear to features of Stravinsky's music he could not hear without it. He does a poor job of pinpointing the passages in question, or clarifying how they work.
The crux of the matter is that unlike most other composers to whose music Balanchine was drawn, Stravinsky was not dead. Moreover, though Balanchine's elder by 22 years, he was in exile from the same pre-Revolutionary paradise. For all the pair's differences, they shared a common heritage and language. Thus their collaboration (whether played out within the same studio, bicoastally, or with an ocean between them) remained very, very close. So a diligent researcher, and Mr. Joseph is no less, can find lots to say. But his spadework has turned up mountains of what mostly turns out to be slag. Wherever the golden nuggets of invention lies buried, Mr. Joseph has not found it.

Matthew Gurewitsch is a cultural essayist and lecturer in New York City.

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