George Balanchine choreographed Theme and Variations in 1947 for Ballet Theatre, which had been founded eight years earlier. Alicia Alonzo and Igor Youskevitch danced the principal roles at the premiere. It is this work, set to the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Third Orchestral Suite, which Lincoln Kirstein credited with finally establishing Balanchine’s reputation—fifteen years after his arrival in the U. S. and a year before the birth of New York City Ballet.
A celebration of the grand Petipa style that Balanchine knew so well,Theme and Variations is unmistakably imperial in its ancestry—with its hierarchical cast consisting of ballerina, premier danseur, soloists, and corps de ballet; its undisguised use of the most rudimentary classical steps, signaled by the battement tendu that opens the work and recurs as a “theme” gesture throughout the increasingly complicated variations; its brilliant, courtly atmosphere that culminates in the stirring processional polonaise; and its deliberate evocation of that most regal of ballets, The Sleeping Beauty.
But Theme and Variations is also classicism pushed to the limit, a flowering of everything Balanchine had learned from Petipa refracted through his own 20th century sensibility. With its quicksilver speed, vigor of attack, playful changes of direction, and unexpected musical accents, the ballet is a glorious example of Balanchine’s genius for apprehending the essence of a style together with its potential for organic evolution. A daunting challenge for the dancers, it was singled out by Mikhail Baryshnikov as the most difficult ballet he ever danced.
When PNB Founding Artistic Director Francia Russell traveled to Leningrad in 1988 to stage the Soviet Union’s first authorized version ever of a Balanchine ballet, it is most fitting that Theme and Variations was the work she chose. The ballet has been in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s repertory since 1985.
Notes by Jeanie Thomas; edited by Doug Fullington, 2009.