Pas de deux - Stravinsky and Balanchine

Stravinsky's work in ballet falls neatly into two periods. First he worked for Serge Diaghilev, on a succession of works that ran from The Firebird in 1910 to Apollo in 1928, the year before the great impresario's death. The composer may not have known it at the time, but with that last work Diaghilev had bequeathed him a successor, for all his ballet scores thereafter were written for the choreographer of Apollo: George Balanchine.

Born in 1904, Balanchine was more than 20 years younger than Stravinsky, and had come to maturity in a Russia already Soviet. Even so, the two men had much in common. Both grew up in St Petersburg, within artistic families; Balanchine's father was a composer and Stravinsky's a solo bass singer at the principal theatre, the Mariinsky, where the young Balanchine began his training in the dance school. Also, unusually for a dancer-choreographer, Balanchine had a thorough musical education, in piano and composition. He could speak the composer's native language - or, rather, the composer's two native languages: music and Russian.

Their first contact came in 1925. The year before, Balanchine had left the Soviet Union with a small company, including his first wife, to tour western Europe. None of them went back, for they were spotted by Diaghilev in London and drawn into his Ballets Russes. Though only 20 when he joined Diaghilev's troupe, Balanchine already had experience as a choreographer, and Diaghilev gave him his chance - not least with that first Stravinsky assignment, to revise the composer's wartime ballet Chant du rossignol (Song of the Nightingale) in the original designs by the french artist Henri Matisse. At the first performance the Nightingale was danced by Alicia Markova and the Mechanical Nightingale by the choreographer, still dancing at that time (though not for much longer). Three years later he was given a new Stravinsky score to stage, Apollon musagète (or Apollo, as it was renamed), with Serge Lifar in the title role.

Stravinsky was delighted by this work, by how its new dance language paralleled his musical language in depending on classical models given a modern twist. He, in Apollo, looked back through Tchaikovsky to Jean-Baptiste Lully, one of Louis XIV's chief composers, but also sideways to the café music of the period. Balanchine, similarly, proved himself a noble heir to the tradition that had culminated in the 19th century classical choreographer Marius Petipa, but showed he also knew how people - young people of his own generation - were moving in cabarets and dance halls.

There, however, the collaboration ended for almost a decade. Stravinsky, needing an income, turned to concert pieces that would give him a repertory as a conductor and pianist. Balanchine took work where he could get it, in London, Copenhagen, Monte Carlo, Paris. Not until 1933 did he find a settled home, when the young arts patron Lincoln Kirstein invited him to New York. There he founded the School of American Ballet, preparing a company that gave its first performances in 1935. Almost at once Stravinsky was asked to write a score.

The result was Jeu de cartes (Card Game), commissioned by American Ballet to be performed alongside revivals of Apollo and Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss), another Stravinsky score from the late 1920s. This was probably the moment when the relationship became fixed. Stravinsky's letters to Balanchine, when the project was under discussion, suggest he did not yet have the measure of his choreographer. But, over in the United States on a long tour, he was able to work with Balanchine at rehearsals of Jeu de cartes in April 1937, and following the premiere, which he conducted, he wrote of the latter's 'wonderful direction'. Soon he was thinking of the piece, as also of Apollo, as a joint creation.

After this the two men worked together regularly. From 1940 onwards Stravinsky was living in Los Angeles, while Balanchine had his home in New York, but both of them had frequent occasions to meet when on tour. In January 1941 Stravinsky was in the pit again in New York to conduct his violin concerto, which Balanchine had choreographed as Balustrade. Later that year Balanchine telephoned the composer to ask if he would write the music for a polka to be staged by the Ringling Bros Circus as 'a ballet for 50 elephants and 50 girls'. He would. The result wasCircus Polka, at whose first performance Balanchine's then wife, Vera Zorina, was borne around by Modoc the elephant and gently deposited to the ground, though it is not clear how much of Modoc's movement was stipulated by the exacting dancemaster.

During this period Stravinsky also asked for Balanchine's help in defining a scenario for his Danses concertantes (1940-42), which he wrote as a concert piece in the form of an imaginary ballet, but which Balanchine actualised on stage in 1944. Edwin Denby, writing about this production in the Tribune, got to the heart of the special composer-choreographer relationship: 'Astonishing is the ease with which Balanchine understands the unsymmetrical periods of the music and gives them a visual grace and logic that illuminates the musician's musical intentions'.

For both choreographer and composer, however, adjustment to the New World was not straightforward. Balanchine's dancers had found a home at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but only for a couple of seasons. A touring company he and Kirstein then founded, Ballet Caravan, did not last. By the time of Danses concertantes he had moved on to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, an offshoot of the Diaghilev company that retained its name despite being settled in New York.

In 1946 Balanchine and Kirstein founded a new company, Ballet Society, which at last had an enduring life. Two years later it gained residence at City Center in New York and so became New York City Ballet, under which name it survives to this day. Even before that, however, Kirstein had his eye on the long term. Before the new company was up and running he had commissioned a new ballet from Stravinsky: Orpheus. Ballet Society then included a new Balanchine version of an old Stravinsky piece, the farmyard fable Renard, as one of its first productions, in January 1947. And six months later Kirstein wrote to Stravinsky with a grand proposal: 'Balanchine and I wish to present your ballets in the best possible way. We want to be the repository of the classic productions of your works, ...to have in our permanent repertory Apollo, Jeu de cartes, Le Baiser de la fée, Renard, Balustrade, Orpheus, those other ballets of yours you wish revived, and, we sincerely hope, new works when you write them.'

So it turned out. During New York City Ballet's early years Balanchine recreatedThe Firebird (1949), to a new version the composer made for the occasion, and invited Jerome Robbins to introduce The Cage (1951), a ballet Robbins had made in Basle to Stravinsky's Concerto in D. Two years later there was a plan for Robbins to choreograph the composer's Symphony in Three Movements, but Stravinsky vetoed the idea, saying he was against such use of his concert music ­ even though he had wholeheartedly endorsed Balustrade and was to involve himself again when Balanchine choreographed his Movements for piano and orchestra in 1963. At Stravinsky's request Balanchine also directed his opera The Rake's Progress for its Metropolitan premiere in 1953.

As for new works, Kirstein began angling for a new ballet immediately after the premiere of Orpheus in 1948, but by that time Stravinsky was engaged on The Rake. Not until five years later did the project start to move forward, when Kirstein sent the composer a book of Renaissance dance tunes, together with a stimulating suggestion: 'It is as if time called the tune, and the dances which began quite simply in the 16th century took fire in the 20th and exploded.'

Here was the seed of what became Agon, in which indeed ancient dances - if they do not explode - certainly take fire from the composer's colossal experience and various enthusiasms, from Tchaikovsky to jazz to Anton Webern. Curiously, Stravinsky attended some of the rehearsals but returned to his home in California before the first night, 1 December 1957. It seems he was taken by surprise by the reception accorded this triumph of his partnership with Balanchine, where the choreographer gave such striking reflections and counterpoints to the mix of abstraction with humour, classicism with modern edge, and all with brilliant execution. On the ballet stage, for nearly half a century, Stravinsky's score has been almost inseparable from Balanchine's choreography.

The two made just one more new work together: Noah and the Flood, for CBS Television in 1962. Two years later Stravinsky composed Fanfare for a New Theatre, a piece for two trumpets to celebrate City Ballet's move into the New York State Theater, which remains its home.

Yet the composer's death, in 1971, was not the end. The next year Balanchine and City Ballet mounted a Stravinsky Festival, which included, at last, a choreographedSymphony in Three Movements. Ten years after that, to mark the composer's centenary, there was another festival, when the new ballets were among the last the choreographer created before his own death in 1983.