As a student, Balanchine danced in Marius Petipa's Les Millions d'Harlequin. In Balanchine's two-act version, which he created for the 65th anniversary of the original production, the choreographer, by his own admission, "attempted to remain faithful to the spirit of Petipa's dances" and follows the tradition of the commedia dell'arte. Commedia dell'arte was popular in Italy and France from the 16th to 18th centuries. These comedies were filled with humor, slapstick and mimicry. Actors wore masks of their characters, which became so familiar over time that they evolved into the stock characters — perhaps most notably Pierrot — that today's audiences associate with this theatrical form.
The story of Harlequinade is told in the first act and recounts the efforts of Columbine's father to deflect Harlequin's attentions and marry off his daughter to a rich, old suitor. He is aided in this by his servant Pierrot but thwarted by Pierrette, Pierrot's wife. With the help of the Good Fairy, who alters Harlequin's financial prospects, true love triumphs. The second act is devoted to the divertissements that celebrate the wedding of Columbine and her Harlequin. Act II continues a Petipa tradition in which the choreographer liked to insert a popular song into the scores of his ballets. Drigo obliged him with a French song about the Duke of Marlborough which we know today as "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."
Riccardo Drigo (1846-1930) was born in Padua, Italy. He went to Russia in 1878 and remained there for over 40 years. He was the conductor of the italian Opera in St. Petersburg in 1879 and in 1886 became the conductor and composer to the Imperial Ballet. He worked with most of the leading dancers and choreographers in Russia, and conducted the first performances of Tschaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty and Glazounov's Raymonda. His own works were popular in their day and Harlequin's Millions was internationally renowned.