A Conversation on Chaconne

Boston Ballet Staff

Stager Diana White with Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga, and Patrick Yocum in rehearsals for George Balanchine's Chaconne

Stager Diana White with Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga & Patrick Yocum in Rehearsal for George Balanchine's Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Staging and Dancing this Iconic Balanchine Ballet

Stager Diana White and Principal Dancer Patrick Yocum share what it’s like to be part of the great legacy of dancing Balanchine’s Chaconne. 

Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga & Patrick Yocum in Rehearsal for George Balanchine's Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Rehearsal for George Balanchine's Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga & Patrick Yocum in Rehearsal for George Balanchine's Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Rehearsal for George Balanchine's Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

From a young age, Diana, you knew you wanted to dance and then a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity changed your life. What is your first memory of George Balanchine?

Diana White: When I was 10 years old, Balanchine’s New York City Ballet (NYCB) came to Chicago to recruit local children to perform in his production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. From then on, I dreamed that I would dance in his company. When I was 14, I joined the Lyric Opera of Chicago Ballet, under the direction of Balanchine’s former wife, Maria Tallchief. Soon after that, Mr. B (as dancers affectionately call him) came to Chicago to set the dances for Gluck’s opera, Orfeo. Actually, that is the very same music he used to create the ballet Chaconne on NYCB one year later. It’s one reason this ballet is so special to me. I wrote him a letter, asking to come to New York. He offered me a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, and I started dancing with NYCB the following year.

As a stager, you teach Balanchine’s movement to the next generation of dancers. What is it like to stage Chaconne for Boston Ballet?

Diana White: It’s a delight! For these dancers, learning Balanchine choreography is not a departure. Everyone has a fantastic classical base, and most have danced Balanchine works before. Staging the ballet is a matter of my being as specific as possible about the steps, the musicality, the architecture, the energy, and the artistic intention. Then, together, we try to bring it to the highest level. Each time I work with a new group of dancers, I see new facets of the ballet.

What is it like to dance Chaconne?

Diana White: I danced several different parts, but as with any Balanchine ballet, no matter which part you are performing, you have the experience of embodying the music through his brilliant choreography. It’s like receiving and sharing a gift.

Patrick Yocum: Chaconne, especially for the man, is a fantastic exploration of the speed that you need when dancing a Balanchine ballet. The style emphasizes extreme musicality, and it goes beyond the classical ballet realm of possibility in the partnering. I think the man’s role in Chaconne is one of the best that I’ve seen in the Balanchine repertoire. It’s this beautiful combination of bravura and elegance.

Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga, and Patrick Yocum in rehearsals for George Balanchine's Chaconne.

Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga & Patrick Yocum in Rehearsal for George Balanchine's Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Over 40 years after its premiere, how do you as a stager and dancer interpret George Balanchine’s original vision for Chaconne?

Diana White: Everything is there in the music and the choreography. The dancer should hear the music and fall in love with it, do the steps as well as possible, and then be a spontaneous channel to whatever mystical aspect might come through. When a gifted and honest performer just dances, the audience is transported. One mustn’t overlay an interpretation or try to surpass the choreography with extra effects. This was very important to Mr. B.

Patrick Yocum: All dance, from its earliest beginning, is the perfection of imitation. It evolves when the dancers take in what they are copying and allowing it to live through them. It’s a living thing and just like any living thing, this repertoire is vulnerable. That's part of its vitality.

Chaconne is described as "pure dance." What does that mean to you?

Diana White: There’s no story! Nevertheless, the two sections of the ballet are on different planes of heaven. In the opening section, the dancers are Blessed Spirits, pure and unadorned, but in the second section they are god-like in a more temporal and resplendent sense. The dancers should feel they are covered in jewels and beautiful brocades. It’s a celebration of the triumph of love through music and dance.

Patrick Yocum: The music from Chaconne is from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, based on the Greek myth. The first section of the ballet is music that, in the opera, sets the scene of Elysium. It’s a vision of paradise, but the way the Greeks saw paradise. It’s not necessarily this perfectly happy place. There is this kind of ethereal melancholy. It’s very serene and peaceful, but there is a little bit of sadness. So even though we don’t have a narrative, we can use dance to replicate the mood. Maybe that’s what "pure dance" means—using bodies to communicate on a level deeper than just narrative.

What should audience members look for when watching Chaconne for the first time?

Diana White: Fall in love with the music, and enjoy the spectacle. Chaconne is an offering to luxuriate in along with the dancers on the stage!

Patrick Yocum: Mr. Balanchine famously would say very little about his ballets. He didn’t want the audience coming in having any preconceived notions apart from what they already knew about the music or the dancers themselves. What he wanted was a truly original experience.  So, in that regard, just enjoy the experience with openness.

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director
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