Cover Photo: Sara Adams performing in Stars and Stripes.
Photo by Erin Baiano
When you think of the Fourth of July, the following images might come to mind:
Hot, summer nights...
But for many dancers and audiences across the world, nothing says "Americana" more than George Balanchine's patriotic ballet, Stars and Stripes, created in 1958 as a tribute to the United States.
Set to the iconic, militaristic marching band music composed by John Philip Sousa, the ballet was Balanchine's artistic homage to the country he moved to in 1933 at the age of 29. As the name of the ballet suggests, part of the ballet is set to Sousa's most famous work, The Stars and Stripes Forever, The United States' National March.
Watch and listen to the video below for a little musical history lesson and a taste of this Americana classic:
The ballet was first performed by a star studded cast featuring Allegra Kent, Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, Robert Barnett, and Jacques d'Amboise. It's structure is made up of five sections called, "Campaigns" danced by four groups of dancers called, "Regiments."
The movement in Stars and Stripes showcases crisp marching en pointe, celebratory salutes, and parade-like formations performed by a total of 41 dancers. Throughout the 29 minutes of difficult dancing, patriotic costumes in every shade of red, white, and blue imaginable make their way across the stage. These dazzling tutus and soldier-esque garments were created by Karinska, former Principal Costume Designer and Director of the costume shop for New York City Ballet.
Melissa Hayden and Andre Prokovsky performing Stars and Stripes on tour in Amsterdam, 1965; Photograph by Ron Kroon, Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO)
Over the years, Stars and Stripes has been performed by a number of lucky dancers, and among them, New York City Ballet Soloist, Sara Adams. Take a march down memory lane with Sara, as we talk about her experiences learning and performing George Balanchine's all-American tribute to the United States, Stars and Stripes!
Hi Sara, thanks so much for joining us! To start, when did you perform Stars and Stripes, and what role did you dance?
Sara: Stars and Stripes was one of the first ballets I performed as an apprentice with NYCB in 2008. I was in the corps of the First Girls’ Regiment called, “Corcoran Cadets.” Later, I performed the principal of the same Regiment.
Who taught it to you?
Sara: I learned the ballet from the head of the corps repertoire for the NYCB. Her name is Rosemary Dunleavy.
What was your experience throughout the rehearsal process? How does the ballet compare to some of Balanchine’s other works you’ve performed?
Sara: I remember learning Stars and Stripes for the first time. There were a few of us that were new, and all of the rest of the girls had done it for many years. The few of us who didn’t know the steps watched as Rosemary had the girls who knew it already run it through. Then, she let them go and kept the rest of us who didn’t know it.
I felt overwhelmed at first trying to learn all of the steps, but the more we rehearsed it, it all clicked and made sense. The steps are almost militaristic: very precise, but also playful at times. Like all of Balanchine’s ballets, the music tells you what to do. The steps make sense because the music leads you.
Were you told any interesting stories/information/history about the ballet or Mr. B’s vision for it while rehearsing?
Sara: I learned that Balanchine loved America and wanted to pay tribute to it with Stars and Stripes.
Was there anything surprising about the piece that you discovered while learning it?
Sara: I remember being surprised by how amazing the orchestra sounded. We rehearsed with the piano, so it was incredible to hear the full orchestra for the first time.
The first Regiment starts the ballet off. We are in position, counting the 8’s before the curtain rises. When I was the principal of the first Regiment, I held up my hand, wearing the white gloves, to count the 8’s for the group. You feel the comradery. It’s exhilarating to feel the rush of wind from the audience when the curtain rises, as well as the energy from the audience.
I was also surprised by the sets. At the end of the ballet, a huge American flag is lowered down as the whole company dances on stage. It was very memorable.
How did it feel when you got to perform the ballet on stage?
Sara: It felt very exciting to dance on stage. Our stage is very big, so we all had to dance and move big. It’s very fun to dance with so many dancers.
What was your favorite section or “campaign” to dance, and why?
Sara: I’ve only danced the first Regiment, and I think it’s very fun. The whole ballet is very technical but also playful, so any part would be amazing to dance. The formations and patterns throughout the whole ballet are remarkable. Every Regiment is unique, and the finale brings everyone on stage together.
Do you remember which section was the hardest? If so, why was it so challenging?
Sara: The finale for me is the most challenging. It’s hard to wait after the Regiment for the finale.
Can you tell us a bit about the costume(s) you wore?
Sara: The costumes are so cute! There are a lot of pieces to the costume. We wear white gloves, white socks, and white pointe shoes. For the finale, we put on a gold handkerchief around our necks.
As the principal of the first regiment, you wear a hat that has a tassel that is surprisingly heavy. Also, the principal of the first regiment has to catch a baton from the wing. One of the stagehands throws the baton, and we have to catch it! We also have to twirl it while we are dancing and turning. It adds another element to the dance.
If you could perform Stars and Stripes again, would you, and if so which role would you like to learn/perform?
Sara: I would love to perform Stars and Stripes and do any movement! I really love the guys' regiment. It’s one of my favorite things to watch. The patterns that Balanchine choreographed for the guys to make are amazing. I think Liberty Bell would be fun to learn and perform.
New York City Ballet: Stars and Stripes: www.nycballet.com
The George Balanchine Foundation: www.balanchine.org.
The George Balanchine Trust: www.balanchine.com.
ABT Repertory Archive: Karinksa: www.abt.org