My Favorite Part of Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations”

Photo by Rachel Hellwig.

“Oh, I Believe in Yesterday…”

George Balanchine wrote that his Theme and Variations, created in 1947, was meant “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished.”

That it does.

One part, however, conjures something more primal amid the imperial splendor.

This brief passage in the video below (ending just before the female principal’s solo at 10:12) is set to the 7th and 8th variations in the 4th movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.3 for Orchestra

Tchaikovsky’s Homegrown Sound

I’m not a musicologist.

But, to me, the 7th and 8th variations–especially the 8th–sound like they slip into a not-so-Western vein reminiscent of the music of the Russian nationalist composers known collectively as “The Mighty Five”: Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev, and Cesar Cui.

In his Lecture on Russian Musical History, Michael Parloff explains that Tchaikovsky was influenced by “The Mighty Five” during one part of his career when Balakirev offered him feedback on the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture during the composition process.

He likewise notes that some of Tchaikovsky’s works feature nationalistic inspiration– Ukrainian folk melodies in Symphony No. 2 and a Russian hymn in the 1812 Overture.

Tchaikovsky departed from overt nationalism in his music after the 1812 Overture composed in 1880, according to Parloff (Suite No. 3 for Orchestra came along later in 1884).

Nonetheless, Parloff points out:

“Although [Tchaikovsky] moved away from using folk music as the model, his music does have this indigenously Russian quality, which was noted by no less an authority than Igor Stravinsky.”

Painting of Russian dancers by Andrei Ryabushkin (1902). Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

Dance Across Time

As for Balanchine, his choreography for Theme and Variations reaches further back in time than the Imperial era and further back in dance history than the advent of classical ballet.

When the burgundy-clad corps join hands and wind in circles and under each others’ arms they are drawing directly upon traditional Russian dance. This folk-inspired motif is a Balanchine signature that’s come to be termed a “daisy chain.”

However, Anna Kisselgoff–here analyzing Concerto Barocco, another piece which uses this imagery–writes:

“[He] incorporate[s] the khorovods, or chain dancers, of his Russian background, although Americans have seen these patterns as daisy chains.”

So, what exactly is a khorovod anyway?

According to the book Ballet in Western Culture: A History of Its Origins and Evolution, it is the “most ancient Russian line dance performed by peasant women; translates as “lines and circles which move continuously.'”

Full Circle

In Theme and Variations, the khorovod combined with the “indigenously Russian quality” of Tchaikovsky’s music creates a regal, balletic take on folk dance, but one whose earthy roots gleam through the jewels and crowns.

Despite the beauty and virtuosity of the rest of the piece, this haunting little minute and a half remains most vibrant in my imagination afterwards.

It is, by far, my favorite part of Theme and Variations.


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