February 3rd, 2018

A classic: Kirkland and Barishnikov in Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations”

I saw this Kirkland/Barishnikov performance live on TV in 1978 when it first aired; I’d also seen the two do the same ballet in person. They were a magical pair in the short time they were partners. They were a couple offstage too, but then they broke up and she became dependent on drugs for a while.

Kirkland and Barishnikov were a remarkable duo because, even though their temperaments were very different, they shared a number of important characteristics. They were both perfectionists about their dancing. I believe he was the more naturally gifted and she the more studied (that’s one of the reasons he lasted much longer than she did), but they both reached a physical near-perfection in the clarity of their movement. It doesn’t matter how fast the tempo got—and it gets very fast indeed here in the finale, which is the second clip I’ve cued up. There’s nothing blurry about them despite the frantic pace (and the relatively poor quality of the video). In the midst of all that speed, their positions and lines are impeccable.

It also helped that they were perfect partners in terms of size. They were both very diminutive. I can vouch for the fact that Barishnikov is barely 5’4″, because I once stood right next to him when we were both in ballet slippers. Kirkland is teeny-tiny, not just thin (she later became anorectic for a while) but short, too. Her feet are very big for her size, which I think gives her a strong platform on which to balance.

The only thing that bothers me about Kirkland is that she’s got what I call flappy wrists. I think her wrists and hands are where she puts her nervousness. But it’s a small price to pay.

Enjoy. I’ve cued up some short excerpts from the performance, but feel free to watch it in its entirety. This was originally aired on television, but I believe it’s now only available at the Lincoln Center Library (and in this blurry version which someone seems to have recorded off a TV), held hostage by the musician’s union.

This first one is the pas de deux, which is relatively slow. You can see that one of the “themes” of “Theme and Variations” is to circle around and around—not so much in the familiar pirouette (although of course we see those, too) but in arabesque or attitude with the help of the male dancer. The audience gets to see these turns in many variations on the theme. You will notice them in particular at 13:26 to 13:54, where Kirkland sustains them exceptionally beautifully (with Barishnikov’s assistance):

Here’s the stirring finale, danced at warp speed. I love love love the Tchaikovsky music, and the Balanchine choreography expresses it so very beautifully. Watching this in a theater, I think my favorite part (perhaps of the entire ballet) was when the women do those twirls during the march/processional, at 20:20-20:37. It may seem like a little thing in the video (and the dancers are somewhat hard to see). But in the theater, it was just plain thrilling:

3 Responses to “A classic: Kirkland and Barishnikov in Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations””

  1. steve walsh Says:

    Beautiful. I’ve not seen a lot of ballet so I’ll have to take your word that these two are especially good. One impression I get, which I also see in top level athletes, is that their performances appear effortless. I know that is not true but they are so good that it looks that way.

    The other thing that jumps out at me is that a fair amount of Barishnikov’s movements are in support of Kirkland’s dancing, particularly in the first clip. Is this accurate?

  2. ben david Says:

    Neo i connect your observation about their clean precise line to your earlier discussions about hyperflexible dancers. Looking at the first clip i could imagine that a lot of the poses kirkland passes through would become floppier and harder to read if taken to modern extremes of hyperextension. And yes precision in all those ‘walkabouts’ – it’s like she/they are standing still in the exact center of a turntable. Every time.

  3. Elaine T Says:

    Gorgeous. So graceful and precise. Also my kid and I observed in unison that they don’t have that “I’m performing’ look that so many more modern dancers put on – or give off. Normally I – or we – look at dance clips briefly and then move on. These we couldn’t tear ourselves away from. Thank you for posting them.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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