“Three Dance Variations” from Fancy Free

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            Almost twenty years after Leonard Bernstein’s death, the critics are still arguing over the meaning and impact of his legacy.  What is clear, however, is that the world rarely enjoys the genius of someone who excels supremely in so many artistic endeavors.  Pianist, conductor, television personality, teacher, mentor, social gadfly, and composer of both popular musical theatre and “serious works,” Bernstein wore all hats with avidity.   And he enjoyed stunning success in most.  He had a passion about everything that he essayed, whether conducting the Mahler that he loved so well, or helping audiences “peel” apart the mysteries of music in his many teaching roles.  He knew so much, and could do so much, that he genuinely thought that he could do it all.  His leadership of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and other orchestras is legendary, but everyone knows there were some concerts that, frankly, got away from him in his self-indulgence.  He worked assiduously as a composer of “serious” music, but those works—from youthful successes to his late efforts--have enjoyed mixed success.  But, all that says is that simply he was human.  Other than his epochal conducting, there is one field in which he garnered almost universal acclaim, and that is musical theatre.   When all is said and done, he possessed a talent and a facility for the stage that was as deep as it was prolific.  He simply understood the genre and its demands. 

            He plunged in early, writing for student productions at Harvard, and working with a cabaret group (that included Judy Holiday) while a student at the Curtis Institute.  When he was twenty-six, his ballet Fancy Free was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera and On the Town opened on Broadway.  Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, Facsimile, Candide, and, of course, West Side Story, followed in succession.   But, the music that Bernstein provided for Fancy Free was the beginning.   The ballet is by the giant of choreography, Jerome Robbins, and went on to be reincarnated that same year (1944) as the Broadway musical On the Town.   The Broadway show was subsequently made into a film in 1949, but most of Bernstein’s music was thrown out by Hollywood as too “complex and operatic.”  Those who have seen the show in any of its versions will easily remember the simple premise of the plot:  three sailors on liberty in New York City, looking for female companionship, engage in a series of ritual dances of courtship, competing for the affections of the girls.  But, throughout the dilemma remains:  three sailors—two girls.   They dance in vain, are left in the lurch, and begin to try the whole thing all over, as the ballet ends.

            The “Three Dance Variations” occur toward the end of the ballet, when the three sailors and two women try to decide who will be the “odd man out.”  It is decided that a “dance off” will eliminate the unlucky sailor who loses the contest.   The first sailor dances a galop, the second, a waltz, and the third, a danzón.  A galop is a standard nineteenth-century ballroom dance, written by everyone from Johann Strauss II to Shostakovich.  It’s a fast affair, and traditionally often includes a cornet solo.  Bernstein has cleverly invoked the dancehall atmosphere, with a solo trumpet, and later trombones, playing rustic solos in a popular style.  It’s all over in a frenetic minute and a half.  The waltz is a melancholy little affair that is a study in Bernstein’s signature penchant for displacing downbeats and mixing time signatures till everyone (only in the audience, it is hoped) is thoroughly confused.  In the middle the contrasting section sounds for all the world like Bernstein is channeling Kurt Weill’s best 1920s cabaret style.   It all ends softly as it literally dissipates into wistful silence.  The last dance, a Cuban danzón, would seem to be a reflection of the mad affection that composers and audiences alike had for all music Cuban during the 1930s and 40s.  Aaron Copland, whom Bernstein adored, distinguished himself in this regard, and, in fact, two years earlier, in 1942, Bernstein and Copland premièred Copland’s own Danzón Cubano for two pianos.  So, two years later, here is another danzón, an elegant dance, with a mysterious bass line in the strings and piano, punctuated by spare percussion enhancements.   There are plenty of solos for everyone, as the stylized dance builds to a climax, with Ravel’s Bolero looking over the composer’s shoulder.   It ends as it began, softly, spare, and mysterious.

            The three sailors can’t decide who won, so they resort to a typical sailor’s solution:  they fight.  Naturally, the women are horrified and hurried depart, leaving the sailors to start their odyssey all over again.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan