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#Throwback Thursday: Harlequinade

This week's #ThrowbackThursday is Harlequinade, also known as Les millions d'Arlequin (The Millions of Harlequin).

Patricia McBride and Edward Villella in Balanchine's 'Harlequinade', 1965

Harlequinade is a two-act comic ballet which follows Harlequin as he attempts to win the hand of Columbine. Columbine's father is determined to marry her off to a rich old gentleman, but with the help of the Good Fairy, Harlequin's circumstances are improved and love triumphs. The ballet originated with the prolific Marius Petipa, who was ballet master for the Russian Imperial Theatres. Petipa not only choreographed the ballet, but also wrote the libretto, basing the story on traditional tales from the Italian La commedia dell'arte. Les millions d'Arlequin was part of a set of three short ballets commissioned by the director of the Hermitage Museum, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, to be presented to the Russian Imperial court in the 1900-1901 season. The other two ballets were Les Ruses d'amour (The Pranks of Love), inspired by French Rococo, and Les Saisons, a plotless divertissement depicting the four seasons.

Alexander Shiryaev as Harlequin, c. 1905

Originally the score for Les millions d'Arlequin was to be done by Alexander Glazunov. However, Glazunov was close to Riccardo Drigo, a frequent collaborator of Petipa's who had been commissioned to create the score for Les Saisons, and the two composers soon wished to swap commissions. Glazunov persuaded Petipa and Vsevolozhsky to accept this, and Drigo was given Les Millions d'Arlequin, whilst Glazunov began work on Les Saisons and Les Ruses d'amour. Whilst working on the score, Drigo was fond of walking through the St. Petersburg summer garden daily. Apparently, it was during one of these walks that he composed the famous Serenade, and also the Variation for Columbine, which was written especially for harpist Albert Zabel. Dirge's music is extremely popular in its own right, and was published immediately after the ballet's premiere by Zimmerman publishers. Drigo was urged by colleagues to dedicate the score to the Empress Alexandra; this required Imperial permission, and after lengthy deliberations at court the Tsarina graciously accepted. The Serenade from the first act was a particular favourite, especially in the Edwardian period. It was included in the White Star Line songbook, and was played by the band on the RMS Titanic. Serenade has been turned into a song known as Notturno d'amore, a piece for which Beniamino Gigli became famous in 1926.

Julia Sedova as Columbine, dressed for the Polonaise, c. 1905

The ballet itself premiered at the Hermitage Museum on February 23 1900. The performance was a private one for the Imperial court, including Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and Dowager Empress Maria, and for this reason the original cast list includes some of the stars of the Imperial Ballet: Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Columbine, Georgy Kyaksht as Harlequin, Olga Preobrajenska as Pierrette, Sergei Lukianov as Pierrot, Anna Urakhova as the Good Fairy, and Enrico Cecchetti as Cassandre. Etiquette at such occasions was extremely strict, and applause was not allowed; nevertheless following the final curtain the audience burst into thunderous applause. Not only were Petipa and the entire cast given a standing ovation (rather unheard of in the case of royal audiences), but several princes and Grand Dukes quite literally tripped over themselves in their haste to congratulate Drigo for his music. Empress Alexandra was delighted with the ballet, and commissioned another two court performances at the Mariinsky Theatre (the first on February 26 1900).

Above: Anna Pavlova in costume for Le Rendezvous des Amoureux, 1902; Below: Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Fokine in costume for Le Rendezvous des Amoureux, 1902

Les millions d'Arlequin featured some of Petipa's best choreography. Columbine and Pierrette both have exquisite choreography, and Columbine became a favourite with the stars of the Imperial Ballet: Mathilde Kschessinskaya, Anna Pavlova, Olga Preobrajenska, and Julia Sedova, among others. Petipa's challenging choreography for the role of Harlequin made it one of the most coveted roles for a male dancer. The popular ballet was performed more than fifty times between 1900 and 1917. After the Russian Revolution, the work was staged only sporadically, and had its last performance in 1927 at what had been the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre (now the Kirov), after which it was dropped from the repertoire.

Vera Petipa in the Polonaise of 'Les million d'Arlequin'

But Les millions d'Arlequin - unlike so many other ballets of the period, including several Petipa masterpieces - was far from dead. In 1933, Fyodor Lopukhov staged an abridged one-act version for the newly formed Maly Theatre Ballet of Leningrad. He renamed it Arlekinada, and it premiered on June 6 1933 as the company's first ever performance. It was performed consistently by the company until the 1990s, and was filmed twice, in 1978 (BBC, An Evening with the Russian Ballet), and in 1991 (a rare performance by the company at the Mariinsky). This version is still occasionally performed. More famous - justifiably - is George Balanchine's version for the New York City Ballet. Balanchine had performed the ballet during his time as a member of the Imperial Theatres before the Revolution, and he revived the old production in honour of its 65th anniversary, giving it the name Harlequinade. It premiered at New York State Theatre on Februrary 4 1965, starring Patricia McBride as Columbine, Edward Villella as Harlequin, Suki Schorer as Pierrette, and Deni Lamont as Pierrot. The company continues to perform Harlequinade on a regular basis.

Patricia McBride and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Balanchine's 'Harlequinade'

Here's a rather amazing video (forgive the bad quality) showing Patricia McBride and Mikhail Baryshnikov performing Harlequinade at the White House:

And the Variation of Columbine (unfortunately I'm not sure who these dancers are, but they seem to be wearing the standard NYCB costumes of the sixties/seventies):

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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