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Alicia Alonso on "Theme and Variations"

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One time I posted some transcriptions I made from a ballet program of Mme. Alonso's reflections on Balanchine's first staging of "Theme and Variations". I couldn't find them here, but I think it would be a good idea to make a separate thread on them now that we're discussing the ballet at length in the MCB Forum. So here they are.

Mme.Alonso about "Theme and Variations":

"In 'Theme and Variations" Balanchine kept testing me all the time, establishing a kind of fight in between my technical strength and his choreography. So he would ask me, for instance:

G.B-'Miss Alonso...do you think you could do entrechat-sixes here...?'

A.A-'I'll do them..'

...and then he would say...

G.B-'So, could you now do pas de chat en tournant..?'

A.A-'If you want me to, of course I'll do them..'

...and like that, on and on he would keep torturing me , adding new steps, new difficulties, just to see if I would say 'No, I can't ' at one point, but... I never gave up! That's why the version of 'Theme and Variations' that was presented in the premiere was technically and musically very, very complicated. When other ballerinas danced the role later on-(some of them friends of mine like Maria Tallchief, who was Balanchine's wife)-they would tell me 'But Alicia, how did you let him put this or that in the choreography...?!; Now we are all in trouble!', I would just answer: 'Well, what could I do...?; It was your husband who put it there, Maria!...

Another thing that I can't forget is that with 'Theme and Variations' Balanchine made his debut as a conductor, and besides the historical importance of it I will always remember it because the tempo he chose was MADLY FAST. We all ended up breathless!"

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What a wonderful, wonderful story! Thanks, Cristian. Yes, he had a reputation for liking dancers who would work hard. I've forgotten the name of the one who was supposed to have asked him after her retirement why he didn't work with her as much as he had with another (whose name I also forget) and his answer was, "But dear, she never resisted me!" I.e. She always tried to do what I asked of her (unlike you)...

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Thanks for that, Christian. Having been at that premiere the real beauty of that performance was Alonso's 'manner'. I have seen other ballerinas in the role but it usually comes off as a technical competition (the one exception being Asylmuratova).

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Does Alonso talk about her partner Youskevitch in the context of this ballet? Does she discuss the cavalier role? Or the nature of the partnership in general?

In 1947, Youskevitch was a more established "star" than Alonso. Croce's account quotes Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith asking Balanchine specifically for "an opening ballet for Youskevitch to this music."

We have evidence about the development about the man's variation, just as Alonso provides evidence for the development of the woman's role. Balanchine crafted the male role to fit Youskevitch's strongest points, just as he did with Alonso's role. Nancy Goldner (Balanchine Variations) refers to the male variation, the one with the series of rondes de jambe en l'air and the pirouettes and tours en l'air: :

It happens that this fabled variation was a last-minute substitute for a first version, which Youskevitch described as having small steps and a contemporary flavor. He didn't like it and asked Balanchine to change it. He wanted something "more in the grand manner," he said. One night when Balanchine was in the studio, he noticed Youskevitch practicing double ronds de jambe en l'air. Balanchine thought for a bit, then started a new solo beginning with those ronds de jambe. He finished the whole solo in about five minutes. Youskevitch thought it fit him like a glove.

Croce says that she was told that Youskevitch himself (with Balanchine's permission?) introduced the option, later done by Villella and others at NYCB, of doing the turns alternately to the left and to the right.

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bart...here is what Alonso has to say about it...

Alicia Alonso about "Theme and Variations".(II)

Youskevitch's variation:

"The variation that Balanchine made for Youskevitch, so celebrated by the critics, had its evolution during the early staging phase of the work. Initially, I remember that Balanchine created a variation very par terre and technically simple, based on positions and designs on different angles of Youskevitch body line. Then he overheard that Youskevitch wasn't particularly pleased with it, because he considered that it had few technical complexities. Balanchine accepted the challenge and said:

G.B: 'All right, we will do a variation based on three different choreographic themes', and it resulted in what probably is the variation with the highest technical virtuosity among all those that he created for his men"

atm711...you don't cease to amaze me!. Just when I think I've heard the ultimate thing on what you were able to see-(the last one being Toumanova as your first Giselle), then you have to come with...

Having been at that premiere...

I mean... smilie_mondieu.gif

...the real beauty of that performance was Alonso's 'manner'.

Well, you see...You saw her dancing in '47, and I did so in '97...and believe me...she still had it.

Thanks for that, Christian.

Always a pleasure.

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In "I remember Balanchine," Igor Yousketich says that he and John Kriza ("Lucia Chase thought Johhny would be able to dance it") were practicing, when, in a reflection in a mirror, Balanchine saw a ronde de jambe one of them was doing, and that became the starting point of the revised choreography.

Yes, "Theme and Variations" was commissioned from Balanchine as a vehicle for Youskevitch "that would set off his premier-danseur skills to best advantage" (Charles Payne). Youskevitch had replaced Andre Eglevsky and was having trouble with abstract and modern ballets. There were parts of "Apollo" that he said had "no emotional maturation to justify the steps" and that he had a hard time remembering.

The idea for the ballet originated with Max Goberman who had been going through the Tchaikovsky score and "was struck with the thought that the fourth movement might serve as the music for a ballet in the Petipa style," as "Princess Aurora" had served for the company before.

Alicia Alonso did share the woman's part with Nora Kaye (who was around when it was being constructed) and Maria Tallchief, but only Youskevitch danced the male role for the next ten or so years.

According to Duberman, Balanchine had earlier said "he personally felt 'very strongly against Nora Kaye and Alicia Alonso,' two of Ballet Theatre's stars, 'dancing my ballets,' characterizing both as 'mythical ballerinas.'" Kirstein was happy for Balanchine's first great success in the US but thought that "Theme and Variations" "'is not at all a first-class work.'"

*

The Alicia Alonso and Josefina Mendez Balanchine Foundation tutorial of "Theme & Variations" is really worth while to watch, one of the best - Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella are the students. AA teaches them things that are skimped on in performance - certain matters of tone and presentation ("now after a laugh, you're getting serious").

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Quiggan, I have a question: you refer to "Max Goberman" in paragraph 3 and "Duberman" in paragraph 5. Did you mean Goberman again, or were you speaking of Martin Duberman?

Back to Zoe Anderson's essay in the Royal Ballet program:

"

The leading man's solos are just as demanding. Ballet Theatre had asked for a work that would show off Youskevitch, and certainly got it.... More than 60 years on, both these principal roles are still hugely demanding. Famously strong technicians admit to nervousness over Theme and Variations: Mikhail Baryshnikov singled it out for its sheer difficulty."

and later, she quotes Youskevitch (echoing A.A.'s quote by Christian):

...this is a contemporary way to portray the feeling of the grandeur of the Imperial, classical ballet. I approached the role in that way; I felt the abstract movements I was doing were OK, provided I did them in the spirit of that classical period. So I was imagining, 'I am the prince in Swan Lake' or 'I am the prince in Giselle' or 'I am the prince in....' anyplace... Balanchine and I had some talks about the ballet and he didn't quite like my interpretation. He was always telling me that I should do it less romantically and more abstract. I would tell him, 'I'm trying, but I cannot.'

P.S. All of you amaze me with your memories and research. I am a NYCB fan not particularly familiar with this ballet (I never liked "tutu" and "stiff" ballets), and was originally just sharing my notes about the Royal's performance and program notes. I am just floored by all this knowledge! Now I want to go back in time..... I wish my time machine would hurry up and get here.

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Max Goberman was working as conductor for Ballet Theater, Martin Duberman wrote the recent Lincoln Kirstein biography. The Igor Youskevitch cites come from him in "I Remember Balanchine," which seems to me to be to be the single best source book on Balanchine - ending up a very three dimension view - along with Solomon Volkov's "Balanchine's Tchaikovsky" interviews.

I cited all that stuff because "Theme & Variations" has somehow become exclusively associated with Alicia Alonso, when it was created for Youskevitch, and interestingly Balanchine did not select the music. Also Nora Kaye and John Kriza were associated with it in the beginning. (I would love to see Sergei Polunin in it.)

That said, I would think that Alonso's video would be essential viewing for anyone who is going to perform this - she emphasizes the shifts of tone and the conversational quality that it must in performance.

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I cited all that stuff because "Theme & Variations" has somehow become exclusively associated with Alicia Alonso, when it was created for Youskevitch,

Perhaps also it's associated with her so closely because it was made on her and she gave a definitive performance with Youskevitch, even if Balanchine wasn't making the ballet expressly as a showcase for Alonso. (It turned out to be one anyway, it looks like.)

Thanks for that, Christian. Having been at that premiere the real beauty of that performance was Alonso's 'manner'. I have seen other ballerinas in the role but it usually comes off as a technical competition (the one exception being Asylmuratova).

Thank you for mentioning it, atm711. Youskevitch and Alonso together in this ballet must have been an awesome spectacle.

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(I would love to see Sergei Polunin in it.)

He was elegant and made it look very, very easy!

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Re: Youskevitch quote...

...this is a contemporary way to portray the feeling of the grandeur of the Imperial, classical ballet. I approached the role in that way; I felt the abstract movements I was doing were OK, provided I did them in the spirit of that classical period. So I was imagining, 'I am the prince in Swan Lake' or 'I am the prince in Giselle' or 'I am the prince in....' anyplace... Balanchine and I had some talks about the ballet and he didn't quite like my interpretation. He was always telling me that I should do it less romantically and more abstract. I would tell him, 'I'm trying, but I cannot.'

...here is what Mme. Alonso has to say...

Alicia Alonso on "Theme and Variations" (III)

"In 'Theme and Variations' Igor and I developed a hard and passionate work, achieving our own particular concept of the PDD, essentially with a distinctive expressive feeling. We wanted to be like a dialogue, very warm and personal and way far away from the form being established by Balanchine. That's why we couldn't avoid , on the execution of the new choreography, interpreting it in our own personal way, as much as what the enormous technical demand would allow to. We decided that we were to give a sense of dancing to the melody, to express a sensibility, to follow a theme, to achieve a humanization, or in other words, to make a duo between a man and a woman. As it was expected, Balanchine noticed the shift right away, but for some reason, he didn't criticized us; he kept staring at what we did in silence...and he respected it. At the end of the first rehearsal he just told us:

G.B-'It is not exactly what I'm asking for...but I like it..."

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The conversations of Balanchine given above are so like him.

"Dear, I don't know, but can you make like sissonne, but with little (demonstrates) right before landing?"

"Suzanne, I am man, not trained on pointe; can this step be done en pointe?"

Questions, always questions. Sort of the Socrates of ballet.

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Mme. Alonso about "Theme and Variations" (III)

"In 'Theme and Variations' Igor and I developed a hard and passionate work, achieving our own particular concept of the PDD, essentially with a distinctive expressive feeling. It was like a dialogue, very warm and personal and way far away from the form being established by Balanchine. That's why we couldn't avoid , on the execution of the new choreography, interpreting it in our own personal way, as much as what the enormous technical demand would allow to. We decided that we were to give a sense of dancing to the melody, to express a sensibility, to follow a theme, to achieve a humanization, or in other words, to make a duo between a man and a woman. As it was expected, Balanchine noticed right away, but for some reason, he didn't criticized us; he kept staring at what we did in silence...and he respected it. At the end of the first rehearsal he just told us:

G.B-'It is not exactly what I'm asking for...but I like it..."

The conversations of Balanchine given above are so like him.

"Dear, I don't know, but can you make like sissonne, but with little (demonstrates) right before landing?"

"Suzanne, I am man, not trained on pointe; can this step be done en pointe?"

Questions, always questions. Sort of the Socrates of ballet.

I find very interesting that even though Balanchine's admitted that A&Y's interpretation wouldn't follow 100% his own idea of how the ballet should had been danced, he wasn't shy to admit to liking it...I guess that if the technical part and speed requirements were fulfilled, the rest wouldn't bother him that much...

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Questions, always questions. Sort of the Socrates of ballet.

Balanchine the teacher, teaching everyone who might be willing, by challenging them, his dancers, his audience, his musicians, maybe even his stagehands, and - not least - himself! Everything since "just footnotes to Plato" including among some pretty impressive footnotes, Fred and Merce? Maybe that strains the analogy a bit. But yeah, the Socrates of ballet.

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Regarding the need for speed. Today's NY Times has an article about Gelsey Kirklands new school in New York City.

To help dancers with speed, the school includes instruction in the technique of August Bournonville, the Danish ballet master whose style is marked by radiant jumps, swift footwork and a sense of lightness. (Karina Elver, a former member of the Royal Danish Ballet, will soon join the faculty.) The Bournonville classes are related to Ms. Kirkland's decision to teach Balanchine's "Theme and Variations." And, she was quick to point out, she does not allow cheating.

"The heels have to be down," she said. "You have to be in the classical positions and just move quickly. There's so much beauty that shouldn't be twisted, so I try and teach them how the Petipa relates to the Balanchine. They've got to change their accents" — she snaps her fingers — "and ability to get into the steps more quickly, which is what the Bournonville technique does."

The article is by Gia Kourlas:

http://www.nytimes.c....html?ref=dance

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Regarding the need for speed. Today's NY Times has an article about Gelsey Kirklands new school in New York City.

To help dancers with speed, the school includes instruction in the technique of August Bournonville, the Danish ballet master whose style is marked by radiant jumps, swift footwork and a sense of lightness. (Karina Elver, a former member of the Royal Danish Ballet, will soon join the faculty.) The Bournonville classes are related to Ms. Kirkland's decision to teach Balanchine's "Theme and Variations." And, she was quick to point out, she does not allow cheating.

"The heels have to be down," she said. "You have to be in the classical positions and just move quickly. There's so much beauty that shouldn't be twisted, so I try and teach them how the Petipa relates to the Balanchine. They've got to change their accents" — she snaps her fingers — "and ability to get into the steps more quickly, which is what the Bournonville technique does."

The article is by Gia Kourlas:

http://www.nytimes.c....html?ref=dance

Thanks for that article, bart....how clever! ..."she does not allow cheating..." That's EXACTLY the PERFECT way to describe a travesty's rendition of T&V..."cheating".

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Returning to the theme of Balanchine's willingness to xhoreograph in a way that made use of the strong points of his dancers -- this weeks Quote of the Week from the Balanchine Foundation:

It is my job to create a ballet and simply use dancers in the way they move best. Different bodies have different shapes, different qualities. Some dancers are strong on pointe; others are not. In a ballet I give them what they can do." George Balanchine

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Mme. Alonso about "Theme and Variations-(Grand Finale)

"I didn't have the opportunity to see Mr. Balanchine toward the end of his life, but I did get some messages from him. I remember-for example- one anecdote from 1976, when I was dancing Carmen at the MET as a guest artist of American Ballet Theatre .Back then I was getting some physical therapy by an ex-dancer friend of mine, Bill Weslow. Balanchine was also having treatments with Billy, so he sent me a lovely message with him :

GB-'Please Billy, tell Alicia that after all this years no one has ever danced "Theme and Variations" as good as she danced it'.

I was thrilled...and so I truly cherish this judgment coming from the master himself, plus the very fact that he still remembered me... "

Returning to the theme of Balanchine's willingness to xhoreograph in a way that made use of the strong points of his dancers -- this weeks Quote of the Week from the Balanchine Foundation:

It is my job to create a ballet and simply use dancers in the way they move best. Different bodies have different shapes, different qualities. Some dancers are strong on pointe; others are not. In a ballet I give them what they can do." George Balanchine

Lovely. So if you're dancing the ballerina role in T&V, you better practice those entrechat-sixes really well...! :thumbsup:

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