Balanchine discovered in Tchaikovsky, his fellow Petersburger, romance and imperial elegance entwined – or at least following fast on one another. But in this odd, late ballet, the choreographer kept them apart.
Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 begins in a swoony state. Behind a foggy scrim, Ask la Cour kneeled in despair. The cause soon materialised: barefoot Venuses in long skirts of lilac tulle who did not do steps so much as drape themselves and their loose tresses around this forlorn dreamer.
The doomy waltz that followed was somewhat more upright. Janie Taylor drove Sebastien Marcovici backward and in circles as another chorus of women, again in yards of tulle and with hair flying, closed in. By the scherzo, the corps had doubled. The women remained as pointe-less as ever, but the choreography did gain some form, with the leads zipping around in the foreground, as we expect of soloists.
Suddenly, dreamy impressionism yielded to what until 1970 stood (and elsewhere still does stand) alone as Theme and Variations. Made to order for American Ballet Theatre in “the grand classical manner”, the 1947 work belongs to the era’s crystalline odes to classicism Symphony in C and Ballet Imperial. The women were now betutued, squired, numerous and clearly subordinate to Megan Fairchild and Joaquín De Luz.
Tchaikovsky’s music, Balanchine once noted, “isn’t soulful, it’s spiritual”. It does not burrow into emotions, he explained, but brings them into harmony. More schematically than the choreographer’s other Tchaikovsky ballets, Suite No. 3 marks the passage from soul to spirit; the “Theme and Variations” movement is the apotheosis. Punctuated by radical shifts in direction, the steps begin small – the foot caressing the floor, then the air – before expanding to the whole body.
But for us to recognise the passage from small to large and earth to air, Fairchild and De Luz must give the transitions between big effects more weight. And I am sure they will. Once they recover from the physical shock the dance delivers – Baryshnikov thought his “legs would drop off” and the ballerina part is equally impossible – the steps will begin to breathe.
Until Sunday, returning in the winter as part of New York City Ballet’s Tchaikovsky celebration, www.nycballet.org