Theme and Variations

  • Choreographer: George Balanchine
  • Music: P. I. Tchaikovsky
  • Costumes: Natalie Garfinkel (1988,1990, 1992); Janet Marie Groom (1999;
  • Lighting: Tony Tucci (1990); Adam K. Leong (1992); David Holcomb (1999); Cindy Limauro (2007)
  • World Premiere: November 26, 1947
  • PBT Performance Date: April 14-17, 1988; February 22-25, 1990; March 12-15, 1992; April 1999, April 20-22, 2007; April 2020

Program Notes

George Balanchine choreographed Theme and Variations in 1947 for American Ballet Theatre when that company asked him to create a work reminiscent of the Wedding Scene in The Sleeping Beauty. It is set to one of four orchestral suites written by Tchaikovsky between the time of his first ballet, Swan Lake (1877), and his second, The Sleeping Beauty (1890). Wrote Balanchine in his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, “They were not composed for dancing, yet to listen to them is to think immediately of dancing. They remind us that it is a pity that the composer was not, during this period, a favorite of his contemporary choreographers.”

According to New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Terry, Theme “stems from the Russian imperial ballet of the later nineteenth century. But let it not be supposed that the choreographer has simply rejuvenated an old and revered balletic ancestor; Balanchine invigorates traditional movements by forming them into new sequences. . . . His use of interlacing patterns, of complex body weavings for groups is as much a part of the ballet’s elegance and beauty as is the glittering processional which brings the work to a close in a fabulously beautiful and spectacular burst of imperial pomp.”

Theme is as glorious to dance as it is to watch. It gives the male principal one of the ballet world’s most exciting variations, while it shows off the ballerina’s speed, smoothness and agility. Yet for all its stylistic brilliance, many of the steps are straight from the classroom. Genius is the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple. Who but Balanchine would open a work with a battement tendu, one of the most elementary exercises in the ballet lexicon?

The ballet elegantly displays Balanchine’s musicality. Critic John Martin of The New York Times wrote, “He takes (the score’s) overall scheme of development and its broad phrasing as his background for composition, and achieves a succession of ravishing designs, transparent, ingenious and unforced.” “When dancing various ballets, we dancers sensed a special relationship between the timing of Balanchine’s movements and the music,” adds celebrated Balanchine ballerina Melissa Hayden. Balanchine liked to tell his audience, “See the music, hear the dance.” His movement is a silent and compelling vision of the music. As Melissa Hayden put it, “Who can make Mozart or Stravinsky live like Mr. B? He wanted dancers to sing.”