Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44, 1879)
Choreography: George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
Staging: Francia Russell
Scenic Design: Edith Whitsett
Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Design: Randall G. Chiarelli
Duration: 40 minutes
Premiere: June 25, 1941; American Ballet Caravan (Rio de Janeiro)
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: November 4, 1997
Ballet Imperial is one of a surprising number of Balanchine’s masterpieces that were created in the years before the founding of the New York City Ballet. These were years during which Balanchine accepted a diverse array of choreographic assignments, some of them for rather idiosyncratic venues. The 1941 occasion for the creation of Ballet Imperial was a cultural good will tour of Latin America sponsored by the U. S. State Department. At the invitation of Nelson Rockefeller, who was then Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein organized a company, American Ballet Caravan, comprised of dancers from two earlier Balanchine/Kirstein efforts (American Ballet and Ballet Caravan) and set out to show the dance of the North to South American audiences.
A sumptuous tutu ballet, with a hierarchical cast, a brilliant courtly atmosphere and fluent references to Swan Lake, Ballet Imperial, in Balanchine’s words, is “a contemporary tribute to Petipa, ‘the father of the classic ballet,’ and to Tchaikovsky, his greatest composer.” It is set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G. How magnificently the ballet evokes and and pays homage to the past is clear in the reaction of Nadia Nerina, who danced the ballerina role in a revival for Sadler’s Wells: “In Leningrad,” Nerina recalled, “standing in the Great Hall of the Winter Palce with massive gold columns and huge chandeliers, I got exactly the same feeling as I had had in Ballet Imperial.”
But “contemporary” is also a key word in Balanchine’s description, as the distinguished dance critic John Martin noted: “It would be a grave mistake to imply anything old-fashioned in any respect except the psychological setting. The virtuosity of the old academic style, the grandiloquence of manner, even the conventional mime [Balanchine] has looked back on with a certain tenderness but with an artistic objectivity as well, which allows him to treat it purely as choreographic material and to compose it freely and imaginatively.” Indeed, the ballerina’s role is still considered perhaps the most difficult in Balanchine’s repertory. The choreography of the entire piece has been described (by Nancy Reynolds) as “a non-stop outpouring of kinetic exuberance.”
Ballet Imperial has gone through a number of metamorphoses since its creation. One of the most significant is the change of title from Ballet Imperial to Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, which Balanchine effected for a 1973 production by New York City Ballet. That change was accompanied by the replacement of tutus with simple chiffon dresses and the elimination of all scenery. PNB’s production is based on the 1964 version of New York City Ballet, which Francia Russell notated as Ballet Mistress and staged for the PNB premiere in 1997. All the imperial splendor of the original is now present, including elegant costumes, designed by Martin Pakledinaz, and a new backdrop depicting a room of the Winter Palace with windows looking out upon the River Neva, by PNB scenic artist Edith Whitsett.
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3, Philharmonia Orchestra of London/Vladimir Fedoseyev, EMI Classics 61463
Program note by Jeanie Thomas, 1997; edited by Doug Fullington, 2007.