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  • ‘One huge grin’: dancing George Balanchine’s showpiece ballet Tarantella

‘One huge grin’: dancing George Balanchine’s showpiece ballet Tarantella

Balanchine’s virtuoso pas de deux blends Italian folk dance with syncopated sass in this deliriously entertaining whirlwind of a ballet.

By Zoë Anderson (Writer and dance journalist)

12 May 2017 at 11.48am | Comment on this article

Tarantella is really about the body smiling – it’s just one huge grin’, wrote Edward Villella, who danced the premiere with Patricia McBride in 1964. George Balanchine’s short, incredibly speedy duet is a virtuoso showcase that evokes the ‘national dances’ of 19th-century ballet, while showing off the sizzling technique of modern dancers.

The tarantella is an exuberant folk dance from southern Italy. According to legend, it originated in the province of Taranto, where the poisonous bite of a tarantula spider would send the victim into a trance. The cure was to dance, with frenzied steps driving the poison from the victim’s body – in some versions of the story, this would only happen when the correct rhythm was found. As a folk dance, the tarantella is often celebratory, and sometimes danced for courting.

There are famous ballet versions, from the irresistible finale of August Bournonville’s Napoli to the Neapolitan Dance Frederick Ashton created for The Royal Ballet’s production of Swan Lake. With its tambourines and quick footwork, Balanchine’s pas de deux draws on this tradition, but adds a later, jazzier virtuosity.

Tarantella is a character dance rather than a grand pas de deux. The costumes nod to Italian folk dress, particularly the man’s red scarf and the woman’s frilled headdress. The choreography avoids supported partnering and held positions. The dancers perform side by side, or alternate short bursts of solo dancing. For both, it’s a dance packed with explosive steps and changes of direction, both demanding and mercurial.

Rather than formally presenting his ballerina, the male dancer scampers around her, trading steps and flirty looks. In one sequence, he bends down to beat the tambourine for her spins – one of the few chances he has to catch his breath. It’s a driving, high-energy number, relentlessly quick. (It’s so challenging that, after the first performances, the company doctor at Balanchine’s New York City Ballet suggested that an oxygen tank be provided in the wings. Unfortunately, he forgot to attach the hose from the tank to the mask, leaving Villella without any air: the tank idea was swiftly abandoned.)

Villella saw his role as the ‘hero of an Italian village, he’s joyful, and he’s got his girl, and they’re performing the national dance together for an assembled group and for their own pleasure… The relationship between the two dancers in Tarantella is all-important – their knowing, sidelong glances are part of the ballet. It’s as if they’re speaking to each other, playing with the music, dancing the steps off the beat. Patty and I had a great deal of fun just looking into each other’s eyes throughout.’

This ‘Italian village’ comes very much via the United States. Just as Louis Moreau Gottschalk put his own spin on the music, Balanchine adds both virtuoso ballet steps and some almost Broadway sassiness. The ballerina has hip-swivelling moves, including a sideways shimmy and saucy deep pliés in second position. Just three years later, Balanchine created leading roles in ‘Rubies’ (Jewels) for Villella and McBride, again showing off their attack, rhythm and strong rapport. Tarantella is poised between folk and national dances and the syncopated speed that Balanchine explored in America.

This is adapted from Zoë Anderson’s article ‘Italy via the USA’, one of a variety of articles available to read in The Royal Ballet’s programme book for The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude / Tarantella / Strapless / Symphonic Dances.

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude / Tarantella / Strapless / Symphonic Dances runs 18–31 May 2017. Tickets are still available.

The mixed programme is given with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. Symphonic Dances is given with generous philanthropic support from Thomas and Deirdre Lynch, Simon and Virginia Robertson, Lady Robey, The Constance Travis Charitable Trust in memory of Leslie Edwards, and the Symphonic Dances Production Syndicate, with additional philanthropic support from the JP Jacobs Charitable Trust. Strapless is given with generous philanthropic support from Kenneth and Susan Green and Mr and Mrs Edward Atkin CBE.

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