By Joel Lobenthal
Last fall, American Ballet Theatre raised the curtain on a new production of George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, which he created especially for the company in 1947.
With resplendent sets and costumes designed by Zack Brown, it returns this month for the company’s Metropolitan Opera season. One of ABT’s most iconic ballets, Theme is endlessly challenging to the dancers and exhilarating for the audience. Performed to the festive final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1884 Suite No.3, its sound and sight impact could be compared to some enormous crystal exploding into infinite space.
Ex-New York City Ballet ballerina Patricia Wilde recalls being dazzled by Theme when she saw it danced by its original leads, Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch. “I loved them,” she says. “They were gracious and elegant from the first tendu.” Wilde had already danced many Balanchine ballets at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where Balanchine was chief choreographer from 1944-1946. But Theme’s combinations and formations of classical steps seemed new, cutting-edge in fact—Balanchine’s reinvention of academic technique “putting it out there and laying it on the line!”
ABT Music Director Ormsby Wilkins describes Tchaikovsky’s set of variations as “a work of unrecognized genius. It’s so packed with invention. The instrumentation is magical. He’s experimenting with different combinations of instruments, but it never feels contrived.”
Sensitive as Balanchine is to the score, ultimately the choreographer is, as always, firmly in the driver’s seat. In his 1934 Serenade, for example, he reversed the order of Tchaikovsky’s musical movements in his Serenade for Strings to which the ballet is performed. In Theme, Balanchine creates a long pas de deux for the two principals made from variations 10 and 11. The first is marked “allegro.” But in order to accommodate Balanchine’s steps, the music must inevitably be played at a slower tempo than Tchaikovsky’s actual score marking. “Balanchine is never predictable,” says Wilkins, pointing to the way Balanchine in Theme uses a decided syncopation, working slantwise across Tchaikovsky’s bar lines. It provides an expressive tension that is perhaps experienced rather than consciously flagged by the audience. But as Wilkins notes, “It still works together and feels very organic.”
Theme and Variations has long served as a bridge between ABT and Balanchine’s own New York City Ballet. Violette Verdy first saw Theme during ABT’s debut season in Paris in 1953 danced by Mary Ellen Moylan, who had originally been groomed by Balanchine at Ballet Russe. “Paris went berserk,” Verdy remembers. “The technique, the different contrasts of technique and musicality.” Then in 1958, Verdy herself was guest artist with ABT, where she now danced the ballerina in Theme. After joining NYCB, Verdy again led the ballet when Theme entered NYCB’s repertoire in 1960. Balanchine was forever tweaking his own work. “He had grown into certain things,” she recalls about the NYCB premiere, and was changing accents so that the dancers were already moving on the first note of the musical bar. In addition, “it was a much faster version.”
Theme, indeed, can become too fast. The music has passing moods of melancholy and even languor that the dancing needs to acknowledge. Yet the choreography requires virtuosity and speed to a degree that makes it almost always easier for a smaller dancer to perform. Over the years, however, it has been danced beautifully by many dancers of different heights. They describe it as a challenge to technique and stamina that is second to none. Within twenty minutes, ballerina and her partner have two variations apiece before meeting in the long pas de deux, then returning to join the ensemble for an exultant finale.
ABT’s new Theme isn’t the first time that Zack Brown has re-imagined a classic repertory work for the company. Earlier, he re-created Balanchine’s La Sonnambula and Tudor’s Lilac Garden. As Brown works out his own vision of a repertory work, he likes to immerse herself in the ballet and its production history. “I do a lot of research,” Brown says. “I listen endlessly to the music, read up as much as I can.”
His color scheme for the new Theme is inspired by “the exuberance of the final section,” he says. “It’s happy music and grand.” Tchaikovsky here includes a polonaise, a ballroom dance that was often included in nineteenth-century classical ballets, most notably in the composer’s own The Sleeping Beauty. In the new production, ensemble soloists are in coral and the corps de ballet in red. The ballerina and her cavalier are in a sunny shade that recalls the painted stucco facades of Russia’s St. Petersburg, once home to both Tchaikovsky and Balanchine.
Balanchine eventually liked putting his ballets on a bare stage, with just a colored cyclorama as background. But that doesn’t seem to work for Theme—it demands scenery that may be minimal but must still maintain some architectural presence. Brown’s backdrop is inspired by the eighteenth-century Ostankino palace outside Moscow.
One afternoon last winter, ABT’s studios in the Ladies Mile historic district north of Union Square were humming as the company rehearsed for a tour to Japan, where it would perform Theme. ABT Ballet Master Keith Roberts rehearsed Polina Semionova and Cory Stearns, one of the lead couples who will be dancing it at the Met. Roberts wanted to make sure that every position was academically precise and every partnering interaction the last word in politesse. Ballet Master Clinton Luckett rehearsed the ensemble soloists and the corps de ballet, who power the ballet’s gyroscopic finale.
Like the two leads’ choreography, what they dance is exceptionally intricate and brilliant, and the cast included some of the company’s best and most experienced Balanchine stylists. I’ve seen the ballet many times, and yet that day it seemed entirely fresh. And it will undoubtedly seem all the more so in its new regalia on the majestic stage of the Met.
Joel Lobenthal is associate editor of Ballet Review.
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