Balanchine’s “Theme & Variations” – A brief history of this joyous ballet.

Written by Robyn Jutsum

Choreographed to the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 3., George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations is the epitome of Russian imperial grandeur. Choreographed with an homage to Imperial Russia, Balanchine’s homeland, the ballet includes elaborate tutus, a grand set, and is presented as 12 variations with a polonaise for the grand finale. While the ballet is broken up into variations, there is a grand pas de deux, and the final section (the polonaise) includes the entire 26-dancer cast.

It premiered in 1947 by Ballet Theater (now ABT) in Richmond, Virginia.  New York City Ballet  (NYCB) would premiere the ballet about a decade later in 1960 at the New York State Theater.

The ballet has been well received over the years, and although a plotless ballet, is reminiscent of the Classical and Romantic ballets that audiences were most familiar with at the time of its premiere. The steps themselves are rooted in strict ballet technique, and the pomp and circumstance created is all in Balanchine’s style and the attack each dancer approaches each movement with. In a time when choreographers like Balanchine were also introducing Neoclassical works, ballet stripped of its “frills,” this “tour de force” was a return to some of the trops of the traditional but with an added Balanchine flair.

On the ballet, ABT’s program notes include the following:

“It has been said that Theme and Variations was the “niece” of The Sleeping Beauty – bringing 19th-century ballet into the 20th.”

Balanchine described his own ballet in the most succinct manner as “a dance ballet.” 

NYCB describes the ballet as a true team effort and triumph for those who perform any part in it. “Replete with technical virtuosity that demands bravura performances from not only its lead couple but all 24 soloists and corps dancers, Theme and Variations is, in a sense, a work beyond words.”

Though a stand-alone 21-minute ballet, Theme and Variations was sightly reworked and 

incorporated into Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 (1970) as the Fourth Movement.

This month, our Cardio Ballet instructors are taking on this grandiose Balanchine ballet! Look for movements including grand jeté, pas de chat, pirouette in 5th (one of January’s Ballet Challenges!!), Polonaise steps, echappé relevé + sous-sous, and gargouillade.

See you in class!


Theme and Variations


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