“Scotch Symphony” (1952), on Program III of Miami City Ballet’s silver anniversary season alongside Paul Taylor’s “Promethean Fire” and Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” can be counted as one of the ballets within George Balanchine’s large body of work that’s performed neither frequently nor especially rarely. But its mysteries are worth a closer look.
Of “Scotch”’s three movements, the second has received the most attention. A long adagio choreographed for the ballerina Maria Tallchief, Balanchine’s wife at the time, distills Romantic ballet’s “La Sylphide” to its essence of an elusive sylph flirting with a love-struck man, sans story, while opening the floor to questions. (Why do the men keep the sylph’s enamored suitor from reaching her after handing her over to him by way of a big lift? Why do two men stand in the way when she tries to lead her partner off stage? Where would she take him?) The enigmatic pas de deux is bookended by two bright sections set in the Scottish highlands, as depicted by the scenic drop and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, the “Scottish” Symphony. The curtain opens to reveal eight men in kilts paired with women in long pink tutus; soon another woman, clad in a kilt, cap, and red pointe shoes, joins them.
The female soloist dances — jumps, mostly — almost continuously for over three minutes before leaving the stage, never to return until bows. Known variously as the kilt girl, Scotch girl, and red girl, the role was created for Patricia Wilde, a ballerina known for her mastery of technique, among other qualities. Asked what she had been called in “Scotch,” Wilde replied, laughing, “I don’t think it had any specific name other than just me.” New York City Ballet had performed at the Edinburgh Festival in August of 1952 before Balanchine set to work on “Scotch” that fall. Wilde remembers that, as always, Balanchine worked quickly and fluidly in the studio, keeping quiet any intentions he may have had for the ballet.
Wilde drew upon her own inspirations. She saw her role as “the spirit of Scotland” as she had experienced it on tour, exploring the countryside during any time off and visiting friends there. In that spirit, “there is a strength, but a lightness, an airiness, a feeling of wind blown,” she says. Particularly in a series of brisés (a traveling jump in which straight legs cross twice in the air), “it had to feel like you really had a wind in back of you that blew you across the stage.” MCB’s ballet mistress Roma Sosenko, who taught the principal dancers for the performances taking place this week, also danced the Scotch girl with NYCB, decades after Wilde. Asked about the role’s trickiest steps, she writes that the brisés are difficult to complete as quickly as the music requires, especially at the end of the variation — the time “one rarely feels their legs anymore.”
After a performance in Edinburgh, Wilde’s friends took her to a ball. All the women wore elegant evening gowns, and the men dressed in traditional kilts. (Perhaps the women’s tutus in “Scotch” refer to a cultural formality. The red girl’s kilt might be an aberration — she dances alongside two boys and executes what could be considered male steps — or just in keeping with the spirit of Scotland.) Her friends introduced her around to help fill her dance card with names. “It was such an old-worldy type of thing. It was quite fascinating,” Wilde recalls.
Balanchine observed the spectacular Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, performed at the hilltop Edinburgh Castle, as well as some traditional Scottish dances. Wilde, who also saw them, says the first sequence of her variation — light hops on pointe as the legs cross one another — reminds her of the Scottish dancers she saw who laid down swords and hopped over them in a design. A kind of épaulment, the carriage of shoulders and head in ballet, featured prominently in the national dances she saw, too. Balanchine created a passage for Wilde involving a jump taking off from the tips of the toes, four times, which she remembers him insisting should cover much space and emphasize twisting the lower body against the upper while leaning into one hip. (Sosenko named this as likely the kilt girl’s most difficult step. John Clifford, one of the repetiteurs who stages the work for The George Balanchine Trust, admits it’s “sort of an ankle breaker.”)
No one knows for certain Balanchine’s reason for making the kilt girl disappear with the ballet’s first movement. Legend has it that after he created Wilde’s choreography, Tallchief reminded him that the ballet was meant to be for her, his wife. Clifford believes it was a matter of practicality: Balanchine had a tremendous talent to showcase, and emphasizing Wilde’s force allowed Tallchief to be more lyrical.
Twins Leigh-Ann Esty and Sara Esty, who alternate in the role this week at the Arsht Center, are both new to the ballet and have approached the solo individually but both with much enthusiasm. Leigh-Ann writes, “I think the red girl is like a well-known citizen among her fellow villagers.” According to Sara, “I’ve always looked at her as sort of the ring leader…the baton twirler to a marching band!” More than 58 years after the ballet’s premiere, Balanchine’s innovative pointe work and challenge to stamina haven’t lost their luster. Leigh-Ann Esty marvels, “The first time I tried dancing it the whole way through I almost passed out!”
Program III takes to the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami). Tickets cost $19 to $169; discounted rush tickets can be purchased at the theater box office one and a half hours before performance, subject to availability. Call 305-929-7010, or visit miamicityballet.org.; for the center call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org. Friday and Saturday, February 11 and 12 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, February 13 at 2 p.m.