Profile of a Great Ballet: Theme and Variations.

Posted by on 11.10.2010

In 1947 Ballet Theater commissioned George Balanchine to create a ballet on their dancers.  They requested “ballet in the grand manner” and they got exactly what they were looking for.  With Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 to inspire him, Balanchine created a ballet that some will say is closer to Petipa than any other ballet he created.  The ballet premiered in November 1947, starring Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch. Theme has always been an important part of American Ballet Theater’s repertory.  Balanchine brought this ballet to his own company in 1960, with Violettte Very and Edward Villella in the principal roles.

Dancers who have performed this ballet describe the choreography as “exposed”, eluding to the simple, yet brutally difficult steps.  In fact, the male variation is very similar to an exercise a teacher would give in the classroom.  Igor Youskevitch was not fond of the first version Balanchine created, asking him if he could tweak it to make it more suitable to his abilities.  Balanchine decide to re-choreograph the solo, which took him roughly five minutes.  Youskevitch was very happy with the outcome, though I am sure many men who have danced this since then, would beg to disagree.  Like the rest of the ballet, the steps are simple, yet devastatingly difficult to excecute.

This theme of simplicity carries on throughout.  When the curtain rises, the corps women and principal couple begin with simples tendus.  As the ballet continues, the corps women borree around the demi women, as they are doing a slow adagio combination.  (As a side note, we call this moment the “car wash”, as the twirling tutus look like the brushes in an automatic car wash.  I am not sure if this is an official term, but I find it very amusing.)  A similar moment appears later, as the corps women weave in and out around the principal woman before she begins her spritely solo.

Renato Penteado and Jeanette Delgado in “Theme and Variations”.
Photo: Kyle Froman.

The central pas de deux in this piece is always a treat.  The music alone is so beautiful.  Balanchine obviously drew a lot of inspiration from the music, as was his habit.  Another Balanchine habit, was to create the most exciting and dramatic finales ballet audiences had ever seen.  Theme and Variations’ final movement, the Polonaise, is no exception.  Balanchine introduces men at this point, who escort the corps and demi women.  The polonaise is spent creating patterns on the stage and framing the principal couple in their final steps.  The ballet ends with all thirteen couples dancing in unison, ending in a final pose with a expolsive crash of the symbols.

As I get to know more and more Balanchine choreography, I start to find similarities between his ballets.  To me, the Polonaise and Pas de Deux in this ballet are so similar to that of Diamonds.  The music and mood seem to be almost mirrored.  Also, many of the patterns and the choreography in the beginning of the ballet remind me very much of Symphony in C.  This is understandable, seeing as Balanchine created Symphony in C only months before Theme.

I am so looking forward to performing this ballet over the next few weekends, as Miami City Ballet brings Program I to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.


  1. Well,Rebecca…what can I tell you about T&V aside from being an exquisite piece of choreography…? It is a ballet I absolutely adore, andone of the few Balanchines I actually was used to from my ballet going days back in Havana. When I saw it again over here, I noticed little differences in style from what I remember…perhaps a couple of steps here and there being done differently. I have come to the assumption that what I had seen was probably closer to the version Alonso danced, and what I saw here was the inheritance of the revision made by Mr. B in 1960. A joy to watch in any case. Grandeur and Imperial style at its best.

  2. Thanks Rebecca. When you do your first variation as a principal make sure to give me some advance warning and I'll make every effort to be there.

    I really appreciate all of your efforts. You have truly opened up the world of ballet to me. If only we can get others onboard. I think we need to develop and produce a television show. I have a few things in mind as I bet you do as well. We need to do it!

    Anyway, keep up the great work on stage and in the ether.

  3. Rubies has to be one of my favorite Balanchine ballets. It is so amazing to watch, and even better to dance! Valse-Fantaisie is another good one, but I have actually never seen Walpurgisnacht! Glad you enjoyed it.

    I adore Balanchine that is one of the wonderful things about this company, as we have a wonderful Balanchine rep! My all time favorite is a hard one. I think I have enjoyed myself most in Balanchine's Concerto Barocco. If you ever have the opportunity to see that one, it is so worth it!!!

    A variation is a solo, generally danced by the principals in a ballet.

    Thanks for your comment and continued support!

  4. I attended my first Balanchine ballets this past weekend. I liked some of the pieces and am undecided about the others. They were Rubies from Jewels, Valse-Fantaisie, Sonatine and Walpurgisnacht. I really liked Valse and Sonatine. He didn't treat the men too nicely in Rubies. Walpurgisnacht had a lot going on and was different because the women all had their hair down.

    What do you think of Balanchine? Do you enjoy performing his works? What is your all time favorite of any ballet to perform?

    Sorry, last one. Just what is a variation? Thanks Rebecca.

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