by Roman Mykyta
This past season, the Ballet Theatre of Maryland premiered Dianna Cuatto’s original version of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Doing so also marked a special achievement for The Ballet Theatre of Maryland to have now staged and performed all three of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. In honor of this achievement and in the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s birthday, we would like to celebrate this composer, each of his works, and what makes him and performing his works so special.
Considered a “musical giant” of the nineteenth century, Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, created an immense catalogue of musical compositions in his lifetime that are largely regarded with the highest esteem. Through his music, he pushed the perceived limits of classical music with a new and innovative style, bringing both dynamic power and profound intimacy. For Russia, he contributed both to developing the classical music tradition within the country while at the same time giving the classical music tradition a unique Slavic voice. However perhaps his most important contribution, especially for ballet, was giving what is almost universally accepted as the greatest ballet music for the art form’s repertoire along with a legacy that many composers have been able to follow successfully.
Tchaikovsky was the second son of his father, Ilya’s second marriage. His father was a very capable engineer who also cherished a romantic love of the theatre and Russian drama. Tchaikovsky’s mother Alexandra, was half-French, and while being reserved and refined she possessed special talents for playing the piano. It is recorded from a variety of sources that Tchaikovsky demonstrated tremendous passion for playing and composing music from the first time he was presented with the family’s orchestrion. However through his schooling, he was steered toward joining the civil service. That being said, after he had served his time he naturally came to enroll himself in the Russian Music Society and St. Petersburg Music Conservatory. From there, one could say, the rest is history. Tchaikovsky’s musical career took off, not without development and maturation, but from the very beginning he demonstrated tremendous potential and his creations indicated his rich talent. In addition to writing music, he also published his own academic books about music theory and musical harmony and it was the first time the subject was actually treated in Russian for the Russian people. Before writing ballet, Tchaikovsky wrote songs, sonatas, symphonies, and operas. He naturally began writing compositions for piano and intimate string quartets, but he seemed the most drawn to the power that could be had in symphonic music and it is his mastery of this genre that truly characterizes his style. Using this symphonic style in ballet however was so different from anything that had come before, but it was this union between ballet and symphonic music that would only prove to be so perfect. Listening to pre-Tchaikovsky music for ballet, though aesthetically beautiful and tasteful, they tend to be rhythmic melodies that lack the pathos and dramatic characterization Tchaikovsky puts into any of his ballets. Perhaps the only exception is Delibes, composer of Coppelia and Sylvia, whose music actually inspired Tchaikovsky. For ballet, Tchaikovsky made the music just as important in telling the story as the action on the stage, and though this radical step took time to be recognized, today it is what makes him considered as the greatest ballet composers. Other ballet composers followed in his legacy and in their own time they have achieved the same goal in their own style, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, being two especially that come to mind.
The Swan Corps from Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Production of Swan Lake at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, February 2014.
Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, scored in 1877. Interestingly, his very first inspiration for the ballet can be traced all the way back to 1871 while spending the summer vacationing in Kamenka with his sister and her daughters. Produced from simple play and improvisation with his nieces, Tchaikovsky created the basic libretto about the love between the enchanted swan-maiden Odette and Prince Siegfried. After writing the score, he also apparently choreographed the ballet for his nieces and brother Modest to perform as part of the family’s living room entertainment. Distinct musical parts of Swan Lake also have earlier origins. From his very first opera The Voyevoda, the entr’acte of this opera’s third act, would become the beginning of Swan Lake’s Act IV and the music meant reunite the lovers in the opera would also reunite Odette and Siegfried at the end of the ballet. Similarly, there was another earlier opera named Ondine, a tragic love story about a mermaid and a prince, which featured a love duet, sung between the two protagonists of the story. However, after scrapping the opera as a whole, Tchaikovsky re-scored the vocal parts of this duet for strings and the same song became the heart-wrenching and almost hypnotizing music of the White Swan pas de deux. For many balletomanes, this particular adagio is one of the showstoppers of the ballet for its sheer beauty, both in the music and the dancing. Gaia Rappaport, principal dancer with Ballet Theatre of Maryland, says it’s her favorite part of the show. She shares:
"The White Swan pas de deux in Swan Lake is one of my very favorite duets in classical ballet. Odette is so vulnerable and her movement so uniquely stylized and delicate. Done well, it can be absolutely heartbreaking and breathtaking at the same time."
Principals Nicole Kelsch and Alexander Collen as Odette and Benno, the Prince's Friend, in Swan Lake.
Swan Lake premiered in 1877, was not the same ballet many of us know today. In many ways, if one listens to the original unaltered score it will probably sound unfinished and disparate. The music that many traditionally know as the Black Swan pas de deux is found randomly in Act I, probably originally meant to be used as a Peasant pas de deux as in Giselle. Act III then has a large string of dances for a pas de six, and it is here that musicologists can suppose when Odile probably did her dancing. There is also another additional pas de deux found in the middle of this act that Balanchine set as his neo-classical Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Act II and IV are mostly in tact although the Act II dances seem out of order. The reason for all of this is because the score was basically unfinished due to the nature of the original premiere. In 1877 Swan Lake was set to give a B-list ballerina named Pauline Karpakova, a testimonial gala performance. The Ballerina, not willing to risk a bad performance, opted to cut Tchaikovsky’s music for pas de deux and variation and revive previous ones she had already done from other ballets. This was done without regard for the work of the composer and his music was blended with others of lower quality. The choreographer for this original premiere, Jules Reisinger, is also remembered having little inspiration for this ballet. Tchaikovsky was unhappy with the ballet’s premiere and unfortunately never saw it realized in all of its glory that came with its 1895 revival. Here, his old friend, Marius Petipa, along with Lev Ivanov, took his original score and staged the masterpiece that we know today. In doing so, they made necessary changes to the score to give the ballet the dramatic potential it was always meant to have. Among some of the changes, included edits to the music and individual songs done by the composer in residence Ricardo Drigo. All this being said, Swan Lake is not like any other ballet because the score, in its largely unfinished state, is rather fluid. Therefore, each choreographer has the opportunity to interact with it and set it according to their own vision. The Mariinsky Theatre probably preserves Petipa’s version the closest. Other companies and choreographers have taken the score and gone in different directions. Some versions approach specifically the Black Swan pas de deux differently, not using the traditional Petipa music, but rather mining parts from the original pas de six to help tell the story. In light of Tchaikovsky’s frustration with its 1877 premiere, Swan Lake now is the most popular ballet among dancers, balletomanes, and the general public and its name is almost synonymous with the art form. Its success can be attributed to all of its parts, from the dramatic libretto to the captivating choreography, but certainly Tchaikovsky’s enchanting music, filled with soul-stirring pathos, is one of the biggest reasons the world loves Swan Lake.
Ballet Theatre of Maryland first presented the full length Swan Lake two years ago with Dianna Cuatto as artistic director. The dancers from Ballet Theatre of Maryland shared many memories and experiences from their time working on the ballet and particularly those moments that were inspired by Tchaikovsky’s music. Nicole Kelsch, who danced the principal dual part of Odette/Odile, says that the music at the end of the ballet inspired this moment to be very powerful for her.
She shares: “My favorite part as Odette was at the very end of the ballet when I bourre across the back, I step up onto the platform and I settle down into the swan pose for the last time. The music in this moment is incredibly beautiful and the scene is very emotional because at the same time the Prince in our version is dying. I repeated this step throughout the ballet, and in some ways it is very simple, but in this moment at the end it had a whole new meaning.”
Nicole Kelsch as Odette in a moment at the end of the ballet.
Speaking for Odile: “The music for Odile creates a much stronger character. Odette is powerful but also very vulnerable while she is under the spell of Rothbart. The music for Odile conveys haughtiness and an attitude that no one can mess with her. My favorite part as Odile was during my variation. At the beginning I do a turn, tendu, and releve, I enjoyed being able to make eye contact with people onstage and stare them down.”
Nicole Kelsch as Odile, the Black Swan.
There would be a large gap between Swan Lake and Tchaikovsky’s next ballet but in 1890 The Sleeping Beauty premiered at the Mariinsky Theater. The experience for Tchaikovsky to produce The Sleeping Beauty could not have been more different than his earlier experience with Swan Lake. He was met with a team of creative equals who all shared a similar artistic sensibility. Tchaikovsky, Marius Petipa (choreographer), and Ivan Vsevolozhsky (librettist) were all either French or Francophile Russians after Peter the Great’s legacy. Vsevolozhsky came up with the libretto adapted from Charles Perrault’s seventeenth century folktale and Tchaikovsky was so inspired by the idea that he apparently completed his composition in forty days before he began scoring. Music critics, who are simply criticizing the music, say that The Sleeping Beauty is a more sophisticated work than Swan Lake in the musical scoring and texturing. Considering the contrasting nature of the two ballet’s beginnings, this is not surprising. With the original production of The Sleeping Beauty the Tchaikovsky, Petipa, Vsevolozhsky team was trying to make a very important cultural statement for Russia. Since Peter the Great’s reign, many classical ideas and ideals, primarily French, had been imported to Russia for its westernization. The two most important ideals that The Sleeping Beauty focused on was a royal court tradition and it’s dance form, classical ballet. Prior to The Sleeping Beauty these non-Slavic principles had to be slowly amalgamated into the culture, and did not quite belong to the nation. However with The Sleeping Beauty the effort was made to truly internalize and reconceive those principles so that Russia could reflect back to the world that it had it’s own voice in the classical art form of ballet and could make it’s own claim as heir to the lineage of the divine monarchy of classicism as begun by the Sun-King Louis XIV. Through The Sleeping Beauty both Tchaikovsky and Petipa did some of their best work. Petipa as the French Master perfected classical ballet with his investment in the choreography. In doing so he gave the Imperial Russian ballet tradition a unique and strong voice. Tchaikovsky was a Russian voice, and through his music he worked to recall the great Western classical music tradition while at the same time manifesting his continuation of that tradition for Imperial Russia.
The Apotheosis from Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, March 2016.
Principals Alexander Collen and Nicole Kelsch as Aurora and the Prince, with Gaia Rappaport held aloft as the Amethyst Fairy.
The Sleeping Beauty was the last of the three Tchaikovsky ballets for Ballet Theatre of Maryland to stage, just this past year Dianna Cuatto successfully premiered her version. Nicole Kelsch, who danced the part of Aurora shares some of her thoughts about the music.
She says: “I was not fond of the second act music at first, especially my variation, but as we continued to work on it, it became some of my favorite music.”
Ballet Theatre of Maryland Soloists, Emily Brennan and Elizabeth Fittro, performing as the Topaz and Emerald Fairy in Act III of The Sleeping Beauty.
Emily Brennan, a Soloist with the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, shares that Aurora’s first entrance and short variation is her “favorite music in all of ballet.”
The last ballet by Tchaikovsky, and one of the last works in his lifetime, was The Nutcracker. Compared to his other ballets, The Nutcracker is noticeably short, with only two acts. The reason for the shorter ballet was because it was first premiered as a double bill alongside a one act opera called Ilonata. Although neither piece was incredibly successful at first, The Nutcracker’s overwhelming popularity has certainly arrived better late than never. The Nutcracker’s popularity really came in the United States. Willam Christensen, Dianna Cuatto’s mentor, in 1944 staged the first full-length version of The Nutcracker in the United States at the San Francisco Opera House capturing the hearts of the American audiences. Of course, Balanchine created his version for his New York City Ballet Company and in 1958 it was televised for the American public. Balanchine’s version, with its largely American cast and artistic presentation appealed to American taste. About twenty years later, Baryshnikov premiered his tour de force version on television, featuring him and Gelsey Kirkland dancing as The Nutcracker Prince and Clara. In Russia, The Nutcracker is popular especially for children, but more of a B-list ballet for its light content and brevity, and in many ways is treated more as a ballet for students. However Yuri Grigorovich, would create his own version meant to address these critiques. Following the tradition passed down from early Soviet productions, he had the roles of Clara (or Marie/Masha) and the Nutcracker Prince danced by adults to make their relationship more mature, culminating with the two dancing the pas de deux in Act II. He also found Tchaikovsky’s music to be very powerfully symphonic and decided very interestingly to choreograph his version in a “symphonic” style. In doing so, he would minimize scenes of strict natural pantomime and rather fill the music with bold, dramatic dancing that could serve as an extension of the acting.
Lindsey Hinchliffe and Loren Williams performing in the Snow Scene from Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Production of The Nutcracker at Maryland Hall, December 2015.
No matter the version, The Nutcracker is a ballet that almost all ballet companies do each year, especially in the United States. It is often the first ballet children see and those who go on to pursue dance training often grow up doing The Nutcracker and creating memories that stay with them forever. Nicole Kelsch who has now been performing as Clara/Sugarplum with Ballet Theatre of Maryland for ten years has many memories to share beginning with the first time she saw The Nutcracker when she was three years old.
Nicole shares: “The Nutcracker was the first ballet I ever saw and it is the reason that I dance. After the performance I told mother that I was going to be Clara.”
Nicole Kelsch and Alexander Collen perform the Grand Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker, in Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Production at Maryland Hall, December 2014.
When asked what her favorite moments of the ballet, specifically those moments that are inspired by the music she says: The music in the show really drives what I’m feeling when performing the part of Clara. One of my favorite moments of course is the pas de deux because the adagio music is so beautiful, but another powerful moment for me happens during the Nutcracker’s transformation from the soldier to the prince and your seeing him for the first time after you think he has died. The music is so different from what had just come before with the Battle Scene, and you can tell that the whole atmosphere of the ballet is now changing, which is also signaling that Clara is growing up. Another part of The Nutcracker’s music that I also love is the Waltz of the Flowers.”
In conclusion, Tchaikovsky’s ballets have become masterpieces and have inspired many artists in their production history. For those of us at Ballet Theatre of Maryland we also have our own intimate sentiments for what Tchaikovsky’s music means to us. This is what truly makes him considered the greatest ballet composer, and to be able to continue his legacy by staging and performing all three of his ballets is both a great honor and major achievement for the Ballet Theatre of Maryland.