According to Balanchine, the three great composers for ballet were Tschaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Delibes. Perhaps best known to today’s listeners for “The Flower Duet,” an effervescent barcarolle from his opera Lakmé and inarguable earworm following its use in British Airways commercials, Léo Delibes first gained a degree of popularity in his time for the ballet Coppélia (or “The Girl with Enamel Eyes”). Coppélia remains an essential work in the classical ballet repertoire today, including Balanchine and Danilova’s staging of it for NYCB in 1974. But this was not Balanchine’s first foray into using Delibes’ music to score a ballet.
In 1925, Balanchine choreographed a solo for Alicia Markova, then performing with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, to another Delibes-penned classic, the pizzicato variation from Delibes’s second most popular ballet, Sylvia. He wouldn’t revisit Delibes’s music for choreography again until 1950 with the creation of his Sylvia: Pas De Deux for Maria Tallchief and André Eglevsky. He then expanded that work into a Pas de Deux and Divertissement for NYCB in 1965.
“That, however, was not enough and I kept wanting to use more of Delibes’ music,” Balanchine writes. La Source (“The Spring”) premiered in 1968 with Violette Verdy and John Prinz in the leading roles. The score is again a selection of Delibes’ music from Sylvia and another Delibes ballet, Naila — as well as a selection of Balanchine’s previous choreography. Upon its premiere, La Source was essentially an extended pas de deux, which uncharacteristically opened with significant solos for both principal dancers before the two adagios and a finale. A winning spotlight for the talents of the two lead dancers, the ballet was naturally quite taxing; a year later, Balanchine incorporated the divertissement sections utilizing the ensemble from his Pas de Deux and Divertissement, bringing this particular engagement with Delibes full-circle — and allowing the principals a chance to catch their breath between the complex and demanding choreography of the solo variations.
Regarding the resulting ballet’s refined, French character, Verdy remarked on La Source’s “...subtle nuances of charm, femininity, and coquetry. There is a certain sense of sophistication in the sense of a civilized social encounter with the audience.” Described as “pink champagne” and “love in the afternoon,” La Source returns to NYCB this winter following a near decade-long absence.