Behind the Scenes with Ib Andersen: “All Balanchine” and “Topia”
Thank you for being such an instrumental part of Ballet Arizona’s 2016-2017 season. Together we’ve traveled the world – from India to Verona to Rio. We are thrilled to conclude our season at Desert Botanical Garden this May with Topia and hope to see you at All Balanchine this week.
What is in store for the Balanchine repertory program this May?
We are doing Western Symphony, Agon, and Square Dance. Square Dance is a premiere for Ballet Arizona. Balanchine blended classical ballet with American Folk Dance in this piece. The music was composed by Corelli and Vivaldi. Originally when he did it – it was almost like a spoof. He used an American square dance caller on stage and the orchestra musicians were on the stage too – imagine it was actually like Swing Your Partner Round and Round then do-si-do. Balanchine took out the caller because he either didn’t think it needed it or he thought it was too hokey – I’m not sure. And at that time he added a male solo. This is a very difficult ballet for the female principal and also the female corps because it is a technical tour de force for the women. For the men it is quite the opposite. The solo is very slow like adagio so for the men the challenge comes from how slow and controlled the movements are.
Agon in Greek means contest. Even though it is not a BAZ premiere, it has been over 10 years since we have staged it so it is technically “new” for us and we are having a Balanchine repetiteur Richard Tanner stage it. Igor Stravinsky was the composer and this was one of those examples of Balanchine and Stravinsky working side by side. The music was composed for the ballet. They worked together very closely. Balanchine’s idea was to make something that has never been made before both in how it was choreographed and how it would come across to the audience. It is one of his strongest ballets. The music is very difficult and it is almost one of the hardest ballets to do proper justice to. Not technically challenging – but to give it the right “nervous energy” it requires. Even today there is a very modern edge to it. It is an extraordinary ballet.
Do I have a favorite of the three? Square Dance is definitely the lightest. Agon more demanding musically because you actually have to count especially throughout the opening and the finale. Western Symphony is a crowd favorite and a fun finale for Arizona audiences. You feel great energy leaving the theatre after that one! No, I don’t have a favorite, I like them all.
Yes, actually I danced all three. Square Dance I performed many, many times. And actually I danced it with one of the very best, Merrill Ashley. She was phenomenal – there will never be anyone like her. She had the fastest legs of any dancer I had ever seen. Then dancing Agon…well let’s just say the first time I did this ballet I had maybe a couple of rehearsals or so, and I really did not know anything. I honestly don’t know how I got through it – I just kind of followed other people while performing. It was really a nightmare. Ha!
What is the story behind Topia?
We had all loosely discussed doing something at the garden, our board members, the Desert Botanical Garden, and the Ballet were trying to decide what to do. Originally it was supposed to have been behind the Wildflower Trail. The location was very nice, but in all practicality it would have been too hard. Then would looked into the location – before the parking lot and the “event space” was created. They came in and leveled out the ground took out the creosote. There were huge saguaros in the background that I loved that became part of the scenery.
While were out there looking – it just screamed to me that it needed a huge stage. It is so big out there in the desert. When I first choreographed it we were still in the old building we actually worked out in the parking lot. Now we have a studio that is only four feet smaller so we can rehearse inside. Topia means both landscape painting, and/or landscaping architecture in Latin.
“Topia” choreography by Ib Andersen. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.
After I decided on the stage then I chose the music, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. I never would have used this music on a normal stage in a theatre because that symphony is one of the pinnacles of music. I only chose it because Topia was outside and the Papago Buttes, the sky, and the desert landscape are so grand, it was the only reason that I thought Beethoven might have the slightest bit of competition. If I could communicate with Balanchine right now – he would probably laugh in my face and say ‘how dare you – good luck with that one’ because of the status of this music. I have so much respect for music – and there are often things that I feel you should not touch because what could you possibly add to it? This one was borderline. But because of the setting I think it made sense to be out there – I think it actually works. The music is amazing. The landscape becomes part of it. It is a surreal experience.
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