New York City Ballet 2021 Digital Season: Theme and Variations

Online, part of the Three Sides of Balanchine series
March 5, 2021

David Mead

The second of New York City Ballet’s Three Sides of Balanchine series focuses on the choreographer’s classical side; and his ballets do not come any more classical than Theme and Variations, his ode to Imperial Russian ballet style and his own Russian background.

It is a ballet of exacting choreography to Tchaikovsky’s rich music, all set in a glorious ballroom marble-columned ballroom lit by chandeliers. The corps women’s costumes, classical tutus with teal or aqua bodices shimmer beautifully as they back the principal couple of Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette.

There is always something of interest. Moments spring from nowhere, not least the lead man’s early series of eight double tours and pirouettes, each perfectly executed by Veyette. Peck meanwhile has the remarkable ability to seemingly pause, as if suspending time, before darting off again, feet twinkling.

Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette in George Balanchine’s Theme and VariationsPhoto Paul Kolnik
Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette
in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations
Photo Paul Kolnik

Best of all though is the way the radiant Peck is completely immersed in the music. Her face, her whole body tells us she is enjoying herself. And that does matter. Her dancing is always precise, her turns fast and sharp – and there are a lot of them.

Veyette supports and shows off his partner well, but he does come across as rather cool. It is a ballet all about technique, and it is harder for the man, but I wanted to feel at least a little more enthusiasm.

Perhaps that’s partly to do with how he sees the ballet. In the accompanying Inside NYCB rehearsal and conversation about the first solo performed by the principal male in the ballet, Veyette comments how, “Theme has no wiggle room. You have to execute the whole way. That’s always been the scariest part of it. It’s like taking a final exam for ballet. You either have the right answers or you don’t.” Repertory Director Kathleen Tracey agrees, observing that the ballet is very exposing and doesn’t let dancers get away with anything.

Threaded through Theme and Variations must be artistry, however, adds Tracey. The ballet may come with a massive legacy, but being able to put your own stamp on it is a big deal, she believes. She also notes how it’s also so important for the man to remember, even in his solos, that he’s always part of a bigger picture.

Both Veyette and fellow principal Joseph Gordon (who we also see rehearsing the solo) and talk about the pressure of dancing the ballet and meeting its many technical challenges. Yet, while you have to tick all the technical boxes, “You only give yourself a chance to do that if you’re relaxed enough to let yourself do it,” says Veyette, adding that Theme is very much a ballet that can “scare you and tighten you up.” Perhaps that’s it.

Theme and Variations is available on and YouTube until March 11, 2021.

There is also a City Ballet The Podcast, See the Music, hosted by NYCB Music Director Andrew Litton, available at