By Dr. Luis Dias 

The great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was living in Hollywood in 1942 when he got a telephone call from choreographer Georges Balanchine. 

The proposition he had in mind was rather unusual: he was relaying a request from The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to compose a short work for ballet, for elephants! It was to be a showstopper for the star elephant Modoc, who would be accompanied by fifty other elephants and fifty ballerinas, all in tutus. 

Stravinsky, a shrewd businessman, did not skip a heartbeat when he heard of the task (or the tusk, if you will). 

Here is the conversation that unfolded:  

Balanchine: I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me.

Stravinsky: For whom?

Balanchine: For some elephants.

Stravinsky: How many?

Balanchine: A lot.

Stravinsky: How old?

Balanchine: Young.

Stravinsky: Well, if they’re young, I accept. 

Flippant as the exchange might sound, perhaps Stravinsky did wish to write for younger subjects, as he may have felt that older elephants would not respond too well to the unpredictable rhythms and unusual harmonies in the piece. 

And so it was that “Circus Polka” debuted at New York’s Madison Square Gardens. At the time it was billed as “Fifty Elephants and Fifty Beautiful Girls in an Original Choreographic Tour de Force, featuring Modoc, premiere ballerina.” 

The New York Times reported that “Modoc the Elephant danced with amazing grace, and in time to the tune, closing in perfect cadence with the crashing finale.” Those present at the debut stated that the rest of the elephants were somewhat mystified by it all. 

The “respectable quadrupeds” (Stravinsky’s words) of the circus went on to perform it over 400 times thereafter. Stravinsky himself did not attend any of the shows. 

Stravinsky then arranged the work for symphony orchestra, and it was first performed on January 13, 1944 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Cambridge, Massachusetts. No elephants in tutus at this concert, though. 

The work was performed often subsequently during charity concerts for the war effort and broadcast over the radio. After one such broadcast, Stravinsky apparently received a telegram from an elephant named Bessie, that had performed in the first performance in 1942. 

Stravinsky writes:

“After conducting my orchestral original on radio from Boston in 1944, I received a congratulatory telegram from Bessie, a young pachyderm who had carried a ballerina and who had heard that broadcast in the winter headquarters of the Circus in Sarasota. I never saw the circus ballet, but I met Bessie in Los Angeles once and shook her foot.”

Following another broadcast, Charles de Gaulle was sufficiently taken with the work to order the sheet music, to take back with him to France. 

The work itself can best be described as a jerky polka, with liberal use of bass drum, cymbal, and piccolo, and low brass, evocative of pirouetting pachyderms, and a “quote” of Franz Schubert’s Marche Militaire, which Stravinsky insisted was not a parody. The work closes rousingly with a series of off-beat thumps.

© Luis Dias. All rights reserved.

(This article appeared in the Herald, Goa India on 13 January, 2010)