How Stravinsky's rhythms inspired generations of dancers

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The Independent Culture

As the autumn dance season starts, it brings a wealth of Stravinsky to British stages. The Royal Ballet opens with the Violin Concerto choreographed by Balanchine; Birmingham Royal Ballet is touring Apollo, Pulcinella and The Firebird, with another all-Stravinsky programme in the spring. In contemporary dance, Michael Clark is half-way through his three-year Stravinsky project, taking on The Rite of Spring this year. Stravinsky, the busiest composer in 20th-century dance, is still going strong.

When I spoke to choreographers, coaches and directors working on these dances, they all singled out his rhythms. Over a long career, Stravinsky developed several styles, starting with the fierce colour of his Russian works, moving on to stripped-back neo-classicism and serialism. But the rhythms remained complex and compelling.

Bart Cook, who is staging the Violin Concerto for the Royal Ballet, jumps around in his chair as he describes the insistent, overlapping patterns, rhythms that drive the music on. David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, quotes the composer: "I think he said once, 'Balanchine doesn't want tunes from me, he wants motor rhythms.' He has these motor rhythms that set you up for long, exciting periods, while he's always varying it. There are all these little internal games going on."

From the first, dance was central to Igor Stravinsky's career. Ballet gave him his first breakthrough; later dance scores were to be turning points for him. Yet The Firebird, his first international success, wasn't planned as a Stravinsky ballet. Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, approached several senior composers. Michel Fokine, who was to choreograph the new ballet, liked to claim that the composer Anatoli Liadov just didn't finish it. "After very many months, Diaghilev met Liadov," Fokine said in a 1934 interview. "'Well, is my ballet ready?' 'It won't be long now; it is well on the way,' was the reply, 'I have just bought the ruled paper.'"

Doubts have been cast on Fokine's story. But the project certainly ended up in the hands of the 28-year-old Stravinsky, who created a shimmering fairy-tale world, full of glowing orchestral colour. Fokine ended the ballet with a coronation scene: no dancing, just dozens of people processing onto the stage, looking like Holy Mother Russia. In the BRB revival, Bintley adds, "My PA was on there, our executive's PA was on there, and they looked gorgeous. I think it's difficult to be on the stage when that music is playing and not feel like you were born in Russia!"

Stravinsky wrote more ballets for Diaghilev, including his next turning-point, The Rite of Spring, in 1913. This score was radical, dissonant and wild. Stravinsky keeps changing the time signatures, his pounding rhythms shifting unpredictably. The music, and Nijinsky's angular choreography, caused a riot. The latter, dropped after just eight performances, was lost. The score established itself as a masterpiece, however, having a huge impact on 20th-century music.

In 1992, when Michael Clark made his first version of this score, under the title Mmm..., he had built up a riotous reputation. The first performances of Mmm... took place at a depot at King's Cross station in London, with a cast including Leigh Bowery and Clark's own mother, who "gave birth" to him on stage. The revised Mmm..., at the Barbican, will be for an expanded company of dancers.

Why Stravinsky? Clark, self-consciously iconoclastic, had been dancing to punk soundtracks, music by bands such as Wire or The Fall. But he too, it seems, had fallen for Stravinsky's rhythms. He has said that "The Rite of Spring has inspired so many choreographers to make their best work. It opened up mine to possibilities that were powerful and physical." Clark went on to make a version of Apollo, and has plans for a third Stravinsky work, Les Noces.

Choreographers are still drawn to Stravinsky, but many, including Clark, are aware that they measure themselves against Stravinsky's long collaboration with George Balanchine. In 1928, Balanchine choreographed Apollon musagète, later known as Apollo. This music is coolly lyrical, yet with a thrilling intensity, and was a turning point for Balanchine. "In its discipline and restraint... that score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I, too, could eliminate."

His dances had a new, radical classicism, with marvellous images. Terpsichore, supported on Apollo's shoulders, "swims" in the air; he drives all three Muses in a troika, recalling the sun god's own chariot. Stravinsky, for his part, attributed the ballet's success "to the dancing of Serge Lifar and the beauty of Balanchine's choreography". Balanchine was finding a breathtaking future for ballet: classical dancing that responded to jazz, to modern life. Moving to the US, he made dances as gleamingly new, as spacious, as New York's skyline. He also commissioned more scores from Stravinsky.

Balanchine's own musical knowledge was an important part of their friendship. He had trained as a dancer in St Petersburg, but had also studied at the Conservatory of Music there. "He always knew the score inside and out," says Bart Cook, who danced for Balanchine in the Seventies, "he could play anything on the piano."

Cook exclaims over the musical response in Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, a pure-dance work without elaborate plot or costumes. As well as dancing to the lines of violin and orchestra, Cook explains, Balanchine's dancers "move in the silences, delivering the counter-rhythms to Stravinsky's". In one section, he continues, the dancers are moving to the rhythm underlying the music, not to the notes themselves. "The way the notes come in, it's like whimpering. You can hear the whimper against the beat, which is nowhere - the beat's not there! You know, it's in the score, but you're not actually hearing it. And Balanchine literally shows you the heartbeat, to let your own go with it."

The pulse keeps changing. Stravinsky's rhythms can be difficult for dancers. But they have a driving force that dancers and choreographers have gone on finding irresistible. "The thing about Stravinsky," says David Bintley, "is that he continues to be one of, if not the most important composers for dance. We're constantly revisiting his music. And the orchestra like Stravinsky, the dancers like The Firebird, the older works as well as the Balanchine. It's lovely all round."

The Royal Ballet dance Stravinsky's Violin Concerto 5-16 October (020-7304 4000); Birmingham Royal Ballet's 'Stravinsky! A Celebration' tours from 17 October (www.brb.org.uk); 'Mmm...' is at the Barbican from 27 October (0845 120 7550)

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