The first time I heard Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Boléro, was for a dance number by the Robinson Ballet. The dancers came onto the stage in sweeping silk skirts, bare feet and loose hair (instead of tied up in their secure buns) that fell to their tiny waists. As they swayed their hips, whirled their arms in alluring motions and stepped in seductive, gypsy-like movements to the music, I thought, “Should I be watching this?” At the time, I was a teenager and used to seeing “classical” ballet rather than experiencing its many varieties in the world of dance. Boléro, I would say, broke me of my narrow viewpoint. Near the end of the piece, as the music pulsated through the trombones and percussion, the dancers had formed a circle and weaved in and out, their long tresses flowing wild. At the end of the dance when they collapsed in a dramatic fashion onto the floor for the final few notes, I became a fan of Boléro.
Ravel wrote the piece for dancer Ida Rubinstein and it caused a sensation at its November 22, 1928 premiere in Paris. Ida portrayed a voluptuous dancer whose suggestive dance atop a table in a rustic Spanish tavern incite the men to dance with her until they lose further control of their “senses,” and end up in a violent brawl. When the piece ended, Ida’s provocative dance and Ravel’s dynamic music caused a near-riot between the audience and the performers. Ida narrowly escaped injury.
Ravel composed the Spanish dance number after Ida had asked him a year earlier to orchestrate some dances by Spanish Composer Isaac Albéniz. Albéniz’s music was copyrighted, so Ravel created something of his own. Since the premiere, Boléro has become one of the most popular and most recognizable pieces of music (think Bo Derek in 10). The composer’s reaction to the premiere was one of surprise. Ravel wrote to fellow composer Arthur Honegger, “I have written only one masterpiece. That is Boléro. Unfortunately, it contains no music.”
The structure of the piece makes the music easy to remember. The composition is based on a single melody, and repeated 18 times by a variety of solo instruments. This rhythm is designed to mimic the Spanish bolero, a dance born by the end of the 18th century with movements created to arouse and excite unrestrained emotion. The music builds in intensity with its orchestral crescendo and ends with an abrupt plunge into another key and rhythmic pattern.
The Robinson Ballet did not cause the stir Ida did in 1928, and their choreography was tame, but Ida’s experience (and perhaps my own transformation) does show how much music and dance can evoke certain emotions.
What about you? Boléro – love it? Hate it?
To listen to Boléro in its entirety, check out this video with famed Dutch Violinist and Director André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra.
Upcoming Bolero Performances:
Dec. 28 – 30, 2010
New York Philharmonic
Feb. 11 – 13, 2011
May 13 – 15, 2011
Detroit Symphony Orchestra