Concerto Barocco

Photograph by Paul Kolnik

On the program for New York City Ballet’s first show in 1941 was a short work called Concerto Barocco, a three-movement abstract ballet set to J. S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor and originally made by the company’s director, George Balanchine, as an exercise for students at his School of American Ballet. 

Fifty-five years after its premiere, I watched Concerto Barocco as a girl on the brink of adolescence, in an open-air amphitheater in Saratoga, New York, where City Ballet spends a month every summer. I sat high in the top tier of seats with my aunt Rachel. She knew my fascination with ballet and got the tickets. 

"Ballet's not really my thing anymore," she told me, "but I'd love to go with you, if you want." I was so excited the night before that I couldn't sleep.

A framed poster hung in the playroom in my grandparents' basement when I was a child. It was an ad for a local jeweler, with two young ballet dancers, male and female, nestled together in croisé — his arms crossed over hers, their eyes raised toward a point in the diagonal distance. As I got older, I realized the girl in the tutu was Rachel.  

Rachel has only told me one thing about that time in her life. I was eleven, and we were in the car driving to the hospital after my cousin was born. "I remember when you were born," she said. "I remember that your dad called and said your mom was in labor, and I got on the next train back home." She looked out the window and laughed. "I was so worried I'd miss your birth. My first niece! I was only a sophomore in college." 

She didn't miss my birth — Mom was in labor with me for something like two days. But soon after, she transferred out of dance school and to a college nearer to home to finish her communications degree. Sometimes I wonder if I played a small part in her decision to swap a promising big-city ballerina’s career for a suburban arts administrator’s. I have closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to need your family so much that you’d leave behind everything you’d built your life around, everything that defined you. I can’t. 

Sitting beside her in the hot amphitheater in Saratoga, though, I was thinking none of those things. I was watching eight corps members in white leotards with simple white skirts move through arabesque and tendu and swirling, chainlike formations. Two women in the same white costumes circled one another, echoing one another's movements, nearly indistinguishable from one another. One would reach to the right, and the other would reach to the left; they’d stand on one leg and pivot toward the ground, their actions mirroring one another, their bodies together forming a complex geometric formation that the limbs of neither could manage alone. 

Behind them, the corps echoed their movements. It resonated like a violin string. I felt a pinch in my chest, a thickness in my throat.

The concerto is in a minor key — it never resolves into a happy chord. Most concerti are built to let a single virtuoso instrumentalist show off while backed by an orchestra, but this one features two soloists. Neither takes precedence over the other, something a virtuoso musician must find odd: they’re sharing the stage together, as are the two principal dancers, whose parts are so similar it’s hard to tell them apart. 

The winding, twisting melody is by turns frenetic and tender, slow and furious, even buoyant, Bach at his best. As the violinists and the dancers meld their craft to one another’s, the result is something quite apart from who they are separately. Their relationship is a new organism, in which they are both distinct and inseparable.

You might think Balanchine choreographed the ballet in order to illustrate or mimic the concert — eight corps dancers as the orchestra, two soloists as the first and second violins. But Balanchine resisted this interpretation. In a description of Concerto Barocco, he said: 

The [dancers] do not mirror the music, rather they move in accordance with its length, the space between its beginning and end being filled by a dance picture of the music. Just as the portrait is different from the news photograph, so the dance picture tries to tell something independent of an exact, bar-by-bar, rhythm-by-rhythm, mirror image of the music.

To Balanchine, the dance and the music exist in parallel but distinct relationship. Each is required in order to form the complete work. They complement one another, neither taking precedence. The dance changes the way the audience listens to the music, and the music makes the dance live.

In Concerto Barocco, this transformative pairing is between the dance and the music, and also between the two soloists who both dance the "violin" parts, and between the two violinists who are actually down in the orchestra pit playing the concerto. 

Each partner is skilled and competent on her own. But together, they create a new thing. They lose themselves to something greater that emerges when one presence encounters another.

I was still a child when I first saw Concerto Barocco, but it was a long time ago. Now, my life path feels littered with people I used to know: kids from elementary school, friendships abandoned when I left that school to be homeschooled, people I knew before college. There is the boy I dated for four years, then broke up with and haven't talked to again. College friends I haven't seen since graduation. Old church friends who are sometimes just names now. 

I reinvent myself. I blush to remember my earlier selves, embarrassed by the activities I enjoyed, the clothes I wore, the music I listened to, the things I said, the person I was. Being around people who knew an earlier version of me makes me feel prickly and strange. I don’t want to be their version of me any longer.

So my friendships are often new, tenuous, shallow, and even family has lost track of the real me; sometimes I suspect they expect me to move back to my hometown some day. I rarely go back more than once a year. 

Writing this down hurts. Both captured and terrified by feeling seen and known for all the versions of me, I’ve gone through times when I couldn’t hold another’s gaze for long. I guard my being, backing away when another threatens to interrupt my airtight world, my conjured image, my carefully constructed melody of self. 

Balanchine had a close collaborator and friend, the choreographer and producer Jerome Robbins. The working partnership between the two men, far from hobbling their efforts, instead resulted in the opening of both the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet, Balanchine’s genius and Robbins’s appreciation and resources combining to create something beautiful. I wonder what effect the two men had on each other, how much of what makes them the legends they are would have existed without their lifelong working partnership and friendship.  

Balanchine died in April 1983, when my mother was four months pregnant with me and Rachel was still a college freshman, and in the New York Review of Books the following year, Robbins wrote a tribute to the ballet master and the almost mystical quality of his work, which, Robbins maintained, derived from his deep faith. 

"Balanchine’s ballets can be read as icons for the laity, should we grant dancers attributes of earthly angels," Robbins wrote. 

Balanchine knew there was something more to his own work than the beautiful costumes and the elegant dancing. It’s not simply about mapping dance steps onto notes. Finding the ballet in Bach’s music meant encountering a real presence, the physical dance that already exists in the ethereal notes. Balanchine had to surrender himself to the music, let it seep into his bones, before he could draw out the dance and let it grow. He once said that for him, it was something like encountering God.

Since that day in Saratoga, when I sat, transfixed, on a hard plastic amphitheater seat next to my talented and loving aunt, I have seen Concerto Barocco many times. I’ve tried to explain its effect. I end up in the same place: I just don’t know how to explain it, I always say. There’s just something about it

That ballet, I have come to believe, is a place where I encounter God — a presence far bigger the ten dancers in white leotards moving in the space opened by Bach’s concerto. 

It’s a start. But it isn’t much good to encounter God mostly at a distance, me in the audience and him up on stage. There’s no challenge, growth, or breaking done there. More difficult is sitting across the table from another person who knows me. When someone begins to get too close, I want to withdraw, pull out of my arabesque and back into a cross-armed standing posture. 

This is a lonely posture, but letting people in can hurt, bruise, bewilder. Looking into another's eyes and seeing myself there means encountering not just that person and their messes, but my own. It means I have to stare my own presence down and feel that pinch in my chest, that thickness in my throat. I have to face the former me because someone knew me then, knows me now, and if we both stick around, will know me in the future. That is love, and it is tricky.

To know someone else, to love someone else, is to lose myself a little.

I admit it: most of the time, I am not ready for this kind of terror. I'm waiting, hoping for the courage, creeping toward it with baby steps. For now, I watch Concerto Barocco and wonder.

Alissa Wilkinson is assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City and chief film critic at Christianity Today. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and tweets @alissamarie.

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