by Linda Besant“More steps per minute than any other show in town,” said dance writer Nancy Reynolds of Square Dance. For fifty years, audiences have been wowed by this non-stop ballet:
“Tempos that could only be called lickety-split.” (Manchester, 1958)
“Filigree footwork that requires the most astonishing technical dexterity.” (Kaplan, 1988)
“The speed of the footwork…could be compared to breaking the four-minute mile.” (Vranish, 2007)
|Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carrie Imler and Lucien Postlewaite with company dancers in Square Dance, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling|
Patricia Wilde, on whom the principal role in Square Dance was created in 1957, described Balanchine’s emphasis on the foot in this kind of choreography. “From the moment it left the floor, the foot had to draw the eye to it — we really worked on that.” Under Balanchine’s direction, less time was spent in plié or in preparing for a movement. “Don’t sit there and have a cup of coffee,” he would say, pushing for accents that were out and up. Square Dance “has a terrific bounce and a very unique drive. It was a joyous experience. Mr. B wanted it to be fun.”
Merrill Ashley, who took on Square Dance in 1977, remains among the most acclaimed ballerinas to accomplish the principal role. “The ballet was filled with fast footwork, jumps, and beats, all part of the standard classical ballet vocabulary, but the steps had to be done in a much freer and more spontaneous way than in most ‘classical’ ballets. A joyful I-love-to-dance approach was needed . . . Many of the steps seemed to have their own momentum, which swept me along, and I felt in perfect harmony with the music and choreography.”
OBT’s Ballet Master Lisa Kipp taught Square Dance to the company. She performed it with Ballet Chicago in the 1990s. “It’s one of my best memories, and the music is beautiful,” Lisa says, “but it was the most exhausted I ever got, ever, You have to reach down into the depths and pull something out if you’re going to get to the end of the ballet. You hit the wall and go past it. There’s a weird euphoria to that.”
Here are a couple of examples of the allegro steps and jumps in Square Dance that dancers find most challenging:
Gargouillade: (literally means gurgling or rumbling) Both legs execute a rond de jambe in l’air (circle of the legs in the air) almost simultaneously, while the body is in the air. “Like a kitten with tape stuck to its paws,” says OBT dancer Andrea Cooper.
This video excerpt of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Square Dance rehearsal shows Carrie Imler tossing off her gargouillades with ease. She does the first gargouillade at the very beginning of the video, and the corps repeat her movement in the next moment.
Long strings of échappés interwoven with entrechats six
Échappé: An escaping or slipping movement where the feet go from a closed to an open position, both sauté (jumping the feet apart), and sur les pointes (on the toes).
Entrechat six: Interweaving or braiding. A step of beating in which the dancer jumps into the air and rapidly crosses the legs before and behind each other.
Christopher Stowell says, “It’s not so much that these steps are hard but that there are so many of them.” Damara Bennett, Director of the School of OBT, adds, “It’s relentless, and exhilarating.”