George Balanchine’s “Stars & Stripes” – A brief history of the ballet

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New York City Ballet in “Stars & Stripes”

Written by Robyn Jutsum

What better way to celebrate July than with some tried and true red, white, and blue courtesy of George Balanchine? July’s theme is Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes with the music of John Philip Sousa, orchestrated by Hershy Kay. Stars and Stripes premiered on January 17th, 1958 at the City Center of Music and Drama (New York City Center) in Manhattan. The original cast included Allegra Kent, Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, Robert Barnett, and Jacques d’Amboise.

The ballet is divided into five sections or “campaigns” assigned different musical excerpts from Sousa’s marches; “Corcoran Cadets,” “Thunder and Gladiator,” “Rifle Regiment,” “Liberty Bell,” “El Capitan,” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.”  The first two campaigns are danced by all women followed by an all-men campaign, “Thunder and Gladiator.” The “Liberty Bell” and “El Capitan” are paired as the fourth campaign, a pas de deux complete with their independent variations and coda followed by the grand finale, “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Each grouping of dancers is considered a different “regiment” with costumes to distinguish which regiment (blue vs. red) they’re in. The finale includes elaborate costuming and sets, complete with a giant American flag as the backdrop. It is like watching a fireworks display on the Fourth of July; jubilant and ornate.

In total, this ballet has 41 cast members, 27 women and 14 men. With such a large cast, this ballet is not as frequently performed as it once was. Oftentimes the fourth campaign (the pas de deux) is performed as a showcase piece in mixed rep bills or special events (i.e. regional galas), and excerpts from the ballet are more commonly performed in professional academies that have a large pool of young dancers. Though performed in academic settings, the choreography is quite challenging, and when performed, you need a cast with solid stamina who can produce clean petit allegro and strong grand allegro work.

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Los Angeles Ballet in “Stars & Stripes”

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Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in “Stars & Stripes”

Stars and Stripes is dedicated to the memory of former mayor of New York City (1934-1945) and founder of the City Center of Music and Drama, Fiorello H. LaGuardia. It has been performed on many special occasions including tributes to presidents like JFK and Nelson Rockefeller’s inauguration as governor.

This ballet represents George Balanchine’s sense of patriotism and perception of the U.S. It is seen as a tribute to everything Balanchine felt the States represented. Balanchine immigrated here in 1934, and he planted his artistic roots to such a degree that he is often credited with establishing the American style of ballet technique. His School of American Ballet and of course, New York City Ballet, are highly revered staples of the dance world in the U.S, and beyond.

In an article for The Washington Post, former Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet and current Artistic Director of Hong Kong Ballet, Septime Webre, shared, “Balanchine loved America as, I think, only an immigrant can — with an appreciation for its drive and ingenuity…His ballets are a metaphor for American drive and energy. The pirouettes are much faster, the legs are higher, the technique is more virtuosic.”

Suzanne Farrell, muse of Balanchine and former member of New York City Ballet wrote in a blog post for The Kennedy Center, “Stars and Stripes is an example of how orderly and engaging Mr. B—a Russian émigré and proud American—made politics and patriotism. His choreography reflects pure reverence and respect for our country interspersed with light doses of humor, and the pride of belonging and freedom we all share.”

The overwhelming sense of patriotism has been analyzed not just as pure adoration for his adopted homeland. Some have looked through the lens of the era the ballet premiered, comparing it to the emotions and political opinions of the early days of the Cold War following World War II. The ballet was arguably used as propaganda to shine a positive light on the U.S. The United States State Department even set the wheels in motion for the ballet to tour abroad. 

It has played a role in historic moments in political and social culture. For instance, in 1981, at the end of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, New York City Ballet performed an encore of the fifth campaign “Stars and Stripes Forever” at the New York State Theater. The dancers wore yellow ribbons in this surprise encore performance. In 1984, Dance Theatre of Harlem also performed “Stars and Stripes Forever,” at the closing ceremony for the Olympics in Los Angeles. Watch footage from their performance here. In 1996, Robert LaFosse choreographed a parody inspired by Balanchine’s original ballet for Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Watch this 2018 rehearsal from the “Trocks” featuring Carlos Caballero and Roberto Vega. And the pas de deux is featured in Center Stage, featuring Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel.

In this way, Stars and Stripes, a plotless ballet, just pure dancing, carries a narrative from start to finish, and it is consistently a crowd pleaser!

We are looking forward to dancing through combos inspired by Balanchine’s choreography, and if you are seeking if more Balanchine influence, don’t miss our next *Stars of Ballet* class with New York City Ballet principal dancer, Daniel Ulbricht, on Sunday, July 11th at 4:30 pm ET! Learn more about Daniel and his Neoclassical Ballet Class on the 11th here.

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Melissa Hayden and Andre Prokovsky

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Suki Schorer on tour with New York City Ballet in Amsterdam

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