How It's Done: Scintillating Speed

Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" needs to pop onstage.
Published in the February/March 2013 issue.

Kochetkova: “You have to be brave, go as fast as you can and stretch every position.” Photo by Luciano Romano.

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux comes and goes like a summer love affair: It’s romantic, adrenaline-filled and all too brief. The bravura showstopper is set to music that Tchaikovsky originally wrote for Swan Lake, but Petipa never used. After learning that the music had been rediscovered in the Bolshoi archives, George Balanchine used it to create a duet on New York City Ballet principals Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow in 1960.

The scintillating 40-second female variation is a showcase for precision and a chance for the dancer to demonstrate an effervescent individuality. Verdy notes that Balanchine added certain touches especially for her. “There are witty things in it—little retards, little changes of return,” she says. “He loved my gargouillades. So in the développé-échappé combination, he put in a retard with the développé à la seconde, which meant I had to make the gargouillades quick; they had to be electric.”

Speed of Light
The biggest challenge of the variation is nailing its lightning-quick tempo while creating an illusion of ease. “Your legs are almost like two sharp knives working really fast and precisely together, while the upper body is very playful,” says San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova, who most recently performed the ballet last July with Staatsballett Berlin’s Dinu Tamazlacaru at the Roberto Bolle and Friends gala in Verona. “It is a feminine variation, sensual in a way, but at the same time fast, which is a very unusual mix.”

To capture that girlish quality, the dancer has to play with the music—without falling behind. “You test how far you can go stretching the positions, going off-balance and suspending,” says Kochetkova, “but still catching up with the notes afterwards.”

Balanchine technique trains dancers to move with this speed. But for dancers who are Russian-trained, like Kochetkova, maintaining the clarity of the feet at this tempo can be the variation’s biggest challenge. Balanchine répétiteur Elyse Borne, who has worked with Kochetkova on the variation, says, “When we rehearsed, I’d say, ‘Cross your fifth!’ a thousand times in 20 seconds.”

Verdy notes that many dancers sacrifice the punctuation of a clean fifth for getting the legs sky-high in the opening sequence’s arabesques and attitudes. “In the quick steps and transitions, you can’t think about the working leg only,” she says. “The turnout on the supporting leg needs to come from the clean footwork, so that when you développé, the standing leg will not shake.”

Fitting Fives Into Eight
Unraveling the very specific counts of Balanchine’s phrasing requires special attention. In the final diagonal of turns, for example, the music is counted in eights, but the step is done in phrases of fives. “It’s not something you would want to do or would hear in the music,” says Kochetkova. “It’s quite awkward at first.” Yet once you find the musicality, Verdy explains, the sequence—a piqué turn, followed by a step-up turn, finishing with a plié on the fifth count—can be a bit of “private fun” for the dancer. “You do that sequence three times,” she says, “and if you really get into the speed of it, you can make a little whirlwind of chaînés at the end.”

Crackle and Pop
Don’t let the technical details temper your energy. The ballet needs to explode with vivacity. “It’s like a sparkler on New Year’s Eve—there should be lights going off all over,” says Borne. “It should be crystalline—quick and sharp, with bright spurts and pizzazz.”

Or, as Verdy puts it, “When the girl comes on for her solo, it’s as if she’s saying, I’m going to delight you with details. I’m going to be champagne with bubbles.”