Balanchine’s first setting of music from Tschaikovsky’s third suite for orchestra was created in 1947, when Ballet Theatre commissioned him to choreograph the theme and variations that constitute the final movement. Called simply Theme and Variations, the work is a riveting display of classical technique that has become a staple of the ballet repertory.
In 1970, Balanchine decided to choreograph the entire suite, incorporating Theme and Variations as the fourth and final movement with only minor revisions. With scenery and costumes by Nicolas Benois, the first three movements are danced in a softly-lit ballroom. The women are dressed in long-flowing dresses and their hair is unbound. In the opening movement, the corps of women dance barefoot.
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.