An intensive development of the classic ballet lexicon, Theme and Variations was intended, as Balanchine wrote: “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished with the aid of Tschaikovsky’s music.” The final movement of the composer’s third orchestral suite consists of 12 variations. The ballet opens to reveal a corps of twelve women and a principal couple. As the ballet moves from variation to variation, the solo performances of the ballerina and her cavalier are interspersed among the corps performances. As in all classical ballets, there is a central pas de deux. A grand polonaise builds to the climactic finale for the entire cast of 26 dancers.
Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (1840-1893) studied at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, where Balanchine later studied piano in addition to his studies in dance. Tschaikovsky is one of the most popular and influential of all romantic composers. His work is expressive, melodic, and grand in scale, with rich orchestrations. His output was prodigious and included chamber works, symphonies, concerti for various instruments, operas, and works for piano. His creations for ballet, composed in close partnership with Marius Petipa, include Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty.