George Balanchine was a choreographer of uncanny musicality, able to extract impetus for movement from an astonishingly broad range of scores. He used an Igor Stravinsky piece for the spare, sculptural “Agon,” sunny George Gershwin ditties for “Who Cares?,” and ebullient John Philip Sousa marches for the patriotic “Stars and Stripes.”
But the artistic chemistry that emerged when he tackled the works of Peter Tchaikovsky was singular. Balanchine returned to Tchaikovsky again and again during more than four decades of dancemaking, including for three works that will be performed at the Kennedy Center this week by the New York City Ballet: “Allegro Brillante,” “Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3,” and a one-act version of “Swan Lake.”
Tchaikovsky compositions also accompany Balanchine classics such as “Serenade” (1935), “The Nutcracker” (1954) and the “Diamonds” section of “Jewels” (1967).
While Stravinsky’s music summoned Balanchine’s boldest and most modern sensibilities, Tchaikovsky brought out his sense of nostalgia, romance and grandeur.
Balanchine professed to feel a spiritual connection to Tchaikovsky, and that showed in the way he built ballets to his music: The steps typically feel instinctive and utterly intertwined with the score.
“For these types of ballets, there seem to be no other steps that would be right,” NYCB principal ballerina Tiler Peck says.
Tchaikovsky and Balanchine were not contemporaries; the composer died in 1893, 11 years before the choreographer was born.
But during Balanchine’s childhood in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky’s presence still loomed large. In fact, it was to Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” that a 12-year-old Balanchine made his performance debut, appearing as Cupid in a production at the Mariinsky Theater.
Years later, after Balanchine had launched his company in the United States, the music “tied him to his own past and to a historically disappearing place and time,” says Jennifer Homans, a dance historian and author of “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.”
But it wasn’t just wistful longing that made Balanchine so enamored of Tchaikovsky’s music. The choreographer felt something deeper than that: He sensed a strong emotional bond to Tchaikovsky and believed that he had a unique ability to understand the troubled, depressive composer.
Not long before Balanchine’s death in 1983, he explained in an interview with Russian writer and musicologist Solomon Volkov how Tchaikovsky had influenced his artistry.
“If it’s not going well, I ask Tchaikovsky, ‘Please!’ I never saw Tchaikovsky, but I turned to him. I’ve never spoken about this. It’s awkward to speak about it. But alone, without Tchaikovsky’s help, I would not have managed,” Balanchine said. “I couldn’t do it alone; I’m not smart enough for it.”
In the same interview, Balanchine declared that Tchaikovsky was “like a father” to him.
The deep well of inspiration and support that Balanchine found in Tchaikovsky’s music served as fuel for some of his key choreographic breakthroughs.
“Serenade,” set to Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48, was the first dance Balanchine created in the United States. Its ethereal beauty and rich, kaleidoscopic corps de ballet work announced the arrival of a new style of ballet.
For the “Diamonds” section of his plotless, three-act “Jewels,” Balanchine turned to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D, Op. 29. The music propelled the choreographer to conjure the opulence and formality of Imperial Russia.
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.
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.”
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.