Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant is an instrumental written by Igor Stravinsky in 1942. He composed it for a ballet production the Russian-born choreographer of Georgian extraction George Balanchine did for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The ballet was performed by fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas. In 1944, Stravinsky published an orchestration of the piece, which is now part of the repertoire of many orchestras.
In late 1941, the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus made Balanchine the unusual proposal to do the choreography for a ballet involving the circus's famous elephant group in the spring of the following year in New York. Balanchine immediately suggested bringing in Stravinsky, much to the delight of the circus company. However, Stravinsky was only contacted by phone on January 12, 1942. Balanchine would later recount the conversation as follows:
Although Stravinsky was busy with other projects at the time, he negotiated a high fee with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus for a short instrumental, which he composed within a few days. The piano version of Circus Polka, subtitled "For a Young Elephant" as an allusion to the phone conversation with Balanchine, was finished on February 5, 1942.
Although the piece is, according to its name, a polka, it does contain a number of changes in rhythm. It only sounds like a polka towards the end, but this part is actually a borrowing from Franz Schubert's Military March. Stravinsky always denied that this was a parody of the Marche militaire. He later called the whole piece a satire, the musical equivalent to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's drawings, but his notes do not reflect this.
By the time the ballet was performed, Stravinsky was no longer involved with the project. The arrangement of the piece for a an organ and a concert band was done by David Raksin. Balanchine choreographed the Circus Polka for fifty elephants and fifty human dancers, led by the cow elephant Modoc and by Balanchine's wife and principal ballerina Vera Zorina respectively. The elephants, including the bulls, were forced to wear pink ballet tutus. Reporters were at first concerned that Stravinsky's music might cause the elephants to panic. Balanchine was eventually able to teach Modoc the choreography.
The show, advertised as a "choreographic Tour de Force", premiered at Madison Square Garden on April 9, 1942. The performance was successful and the crowd was particularly enthusiastic about Balanchine's extraordinary ballet. After this debut, Ringling Brothers performed the ballet another forty-two times, but Stravinsky did not attend any of the shows.
In 1945, George Balanchine re-choreographed the piece for a one-time New York City Ballet performance at Carnegie Hall directed by Lincoln Kirstein; however, the elephants were replaced by children from the School of American Ballet. After Jerome Robbins became ballet master at City Ballet in 1972, he created a new ballet to Stravinsky's music featuring young dance students and an adult ringmaster for their Stravinsky Festival. Since, it has become a regular piece, often with a guest ringmaster, most notably Mikhail Baryshnikov and most recently with Robert La Fosse.
In 2006, a children's book detailing the history of the Circus Polka, Leda Schubert's Ballet of the Elephants, appeared in the United States.