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Theme and Variations: distillation or gloss?

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I've been discussing "Theme and Variations" with several friends lately, and these discussions raised an interesting question. One friend said the ballet was a "distillation of Sleeping Beauty" another said it was a "gloss on Sleeping Beauty." (Both people love the ballet.)

I thought this was an interesting distinction. Which do you think it is? A distillation -- Sleeping Beauty boiled down to 20 minutes, everything extraneous removed. In other words, if we had to lose Beauty to the time capsule, Theme would suffice.

Or a gloss -- a work that captures the superficial charms of Beauty (and certainly is by someone who understood that ballet and its tradition thoroughly) but lacks the depth of the original?

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It's a lot to ask a 20 minute ballet to pack a three hour ballet into it - of course, following current trends, Sleeping Beauty should be about twenty minutes long in a few decades.

When ABT approached Balanchine to create a ballet for them in '47, they didn't ask for a ballet to replace Sleeping Beauty, they asked for one to replace Act III, or the wedding scene only. So perhaps that's a more useful comparison. Theme is self contained even with the creation of Suite 3 around it - it's undergone the reverse process of Aurora's Wedding, which lost the rest of the ballet!

Is Theme a distillation or a gloss? Choreographically, it's a distillation of Act III, but I don't think it can substitute for the full ballet in the repertory. It was meant as a divertissement. Sleeping Beauty makes a moral statement that Theme does not have the time to make.

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In Charles Payne's book about ABT, he wrote that Chase brought the music to Balanchine and asked if he could make an opening ballet to this music that was just like Ballet Imperial. I hadn't heard of the Act III connection.

I think the idea of the relationship to Sleeping Beauty came from writers, not the program notes (I write this not reading the program notes). I don't think it's either a distillation or a gloss, but something separate. Probably because I read Payne's book around the time I was first seeing "Theme," I've always compared it to "Ballet Imperial" (which, of course, at the time I hadn't seen) and admired Balanchine for giving ABT a ballet that LOOKED like a grand ballet but wasn't quite one -- the soloists aren't really soloists; ABT didn't have four soloists, in the sense of Sleeping Beauty fairy-level top soloists, then, but the ballet makes it look as though it did.

One of the reasons why I do rate it a great ballet, though, is because it can accommodate the "Gut Cruncher" dancers as well as the perfumed ones. It can be about music, or technique, or speed, or line, or love, or a spiritual connection and, occasionally, all of those things. Distillation for me, more than gloss, if I can only choose between the two.

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I have always thought gloss could also mean a commentary, and in THAT sense (not as an expert collation of Beauty's superficial charms) I would be willing to call Theme and Variations a gloss on Sleeping Beauty. In a manner of speaking, it offers one great artist's 'thoughts' on another...(Superficial would be the last word I would use.)

I actually am comfortable, though, thinking of it as a "distillation" of Sleeping Beauty -- though as per above, I would have to add "Balanchine's" distillation. It offers HIS conception of what the essence is. (And in its multiple perspectives on the ballerina, it does, for example, draw on aspects of Aurora from all three Acts...)

P.S. Alexandra and I posted simultaneously -- I guess -- so I hadn't read her post when I wrote this. I would have framed things a bit differently if I had, but am too lazy to rewrite...

[ January 24, 2002: Message edited by: Drew ]

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As I wrote once, it's like all of the beauty and none of the sleeping! But no, I don't think if only it survived, people could get a good idea of what the complete Sleeping Beauty was like--both the moral dimension and the humor, as well as the general sence of expansiveness, are missing. But I do think that T&V captures the essence of Aurora and Desire--there is Aurora's youthfulness and technique in the opening (like the Rose Adagio), the yearning of the vision scene, and then the triumph of the wedding--distillation, essence, gloss, whatever. Probably some of each. Certainly it is a great ballet on its own, but knowing something about Sleeping Beauty adds so much to watching it, and I would suspect, to dancing it and to coaching it.

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