And with “The Nutcracker,” Balanchine rebooted the decades-old story ballet, incorporating his nostalgia for the lost world of his childhood. (He also added children to the cast, which injected some of the youthful wonderment that makes this fantasy tale click.)
“From the beginning of his life to the end of his life, there’s a bookend of Tchaikovsky,” Homans says.
‘A sense of royalty’
The works on New York City Ballet’s upcoming Kennedy Center program serve as examples of the distinctive ways in which Balanchine heard and interpreted Tchaikovsky’s scores.
Balanchine first agreed to mount “Swan Lake” in 1951 when presenters were pressuring him for something accessible, not avant-garde.
Though it was originally composed as an evening-length ballet, Balanchine boiled it down to just one act, believing the abbreviated version better highlighted the strengths of the Tchaikovsky score.
“It gives you a heightened sense of the drama in each moment, because you don’t have a long span of time to play it out,” NYCB Interim Music Director Andrews Sill says. “Every moment is so crucial.”
In the familiar music, Balanchine heard new possibilities for use of rhythm and space.
“The patterning is so brilliant, and it’s so alive and visual and kinesthetic and dynamic,” Lynn Garafola, a dance historian at Columbia University, says.
While the music of “Swan Lake” was always intended to support a ballet, the scores for “Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3” and “Allegro Brillante” were concert pieces in which Balanchine happened to hear inspiration for dance.
Balanchine first used just one movement of Suite No. 3 in G, Op. 55 for “Theme and Variations,” a dance he made in 1947 for American Ballet Theatre. Later, in 1970, he decided to revisit the score, this time using the full composition to create a ballet for his own company.
Peck says that, as the music swells from dark and moody to bright and sumptuous, this work makes her feel “a sense of royalty.” (The perky tutus and the glittery tiaras no doubt help with that.)
When you dance this work, “you have to have much more authority. The steps are grander,” Peck says.
The whirlwind that is “Allegro Brillante” is set to Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75, a score that, Sill says, “combines the best elements of using a piano symphonically and then also using it as a solo instrument.”
The 1956 dance is among Balanchine’s shorter ballets, but it also has a reputation for being one of his hardest. In just 18 minutes, the choreographer manages to pack a dizzying barrage of successive pirouettes, tricky balances and space-gulping jumps.
When the work ends, “it feels like you could not possibly do one more step,” Peck, who performs in the lead role, says.
The music, she says, is the key to surviving this gauntlet of technique and stamina.
“You don’t really have to think too much because the music just kind of pushes you through the steps,” Peck says.
Though Tchaikovsky inspired Balanchine for these and other works, the choreographer’s genius perhaps lies in the fact that his responses to the music always took shape differently.
“The way he hears the music doesn’t look the same in each piece of music. Sometimes it’s about rhythm, sometimes it’s about counterpoint,” says Maura Keefe, scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. “He educates us about music as much as he educates about dance.”
New York City Ballet
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., March 31 at 1:30 p.m. The Kennedy Center Opera House. 2 hours and 20 minutes with intermissions. $25-95. A second program featuring “Carousel (A Dance),” “Glass Pieces,” and “Vienna Waltzes” will be shown on Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and March 30 at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324. www.kennedy-center.org.