Six of the best... American ballets
We present a selection of 20th-century ballets created by some of America’s greatest composers and choreographers
Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring
Appalachian Spring is undoubtedly Copland's best-known work. Set in 19th-century Pennsylvania, this one-act ballet tells the idyllic story of a newly wedded couple who start to build their life together. It was commissioned by ‘the mother of modern dance’, Martha Graham.
The piece opens with a gentle motif for strings and wind, evoking the break of dawn. With its hymn-like melodies and folk tunes, the music moves through sweet interludes and celebratory dances before coming to a tranquil close.
Appalachian Spring received its first performance on the night of 30 October 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington DC and remains central to the history of American ballet.
Hunter Johnson – Letter to the World
Premiered in Vermont in August 1940, Letter to the World is a moving biographical portrait of the American poet Emily Dickinson. Combined with Graham’s perceptive choreography, Johnson conveys Dickinson’s psyche through his neo-classical and neo-romantic musical language.
The two principal dancers are named ‘One Who Dances’, depicting the poet’s physical presence, and ‘One Who Speaks’ illustrating her spiritual presence, while the remaining characters embody different parts of her personality.
Henry Cowell – Deep Song
Created in response to the Spanish Civil War, Martha Graham premiered her solo dance to music by Henry Cowell at the Guild Theatre in New York in December 1937. The female figure in Deep Song reacts to the tragedy of wartime events, with Graham's impassioned sequences exploring anguish and fear in the face of man's inhumanity to man.
The work fell out of the repertory in the 1940s: Cowell's score was lost but rediscovered in 2003, while Graham and Terese Capucilli reconstructed the forgotten dance steps in 1988.
Leonard Bernstein – Fancy Free
Fancy Free is, as the title suggests, a light-hearted story that encompasses the fruitless endeavours of three sailors who attempt to win the hearts of young women. Bernstein had not composed ballet music before, but this was to be the first of three collaborations with Jerome Robbins.
A blend of jazz-infused solo piano music and popular dance styles of the day, Fancy Free gained immediate popularity at its 1944 premiere in New York. The score brims with vibrant energy, reflecting the youthful exuberance of the characters, and also incorporates Bernstein’s widely recognised hit Big Stuff, which was later recorded and made famous by jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Famous for his timeless Broadway shows, Richard Rodgers created Slaughter on Tenth Avenue in collaboration with George Balanchine. The ballet is part of Rodgers and Hart's 1936 musical On Your Toes.
Two gangsters enter the auditorium, intent on shooting the protagonist before the curtain falls. Desperate to avoid his impending death, the dancer signals to the conductor to continue the music, and he repeats his last sequence until the police arrive. The thugs are arrested and the hero falls to the floor exhausted.
It is a striking work, a fusion of thrilling choreographic sequences and instrumental jazz.
An affectionate gesture for his adopted home, Balanchine’s fascination with American themes inspired him to choreograph Western Symphony. With music orchestrated by Hershy Kay, this high-spirited ballet takes place on an old western street, populated by cowboys and saloon girls. Balanchine celebrates life on the open ranges, combining the traditional ballet vocabulary with American folk dancing.
Kay’s musical composition largely draws from familiar Western tunes, including Red River Valley and Oh, Dem Golden Slippers. Western Symphony was premiered in 1954 at the City Centre of Music and Drama, now the New York City Centre.