• Zoe Phillips

Ponderings of a Pas de Deux

Updated: Dec 29, 2019

The familiarity of each section gives us a language through which to understand the culmination of a love story, allowing us to hone our focus on the specific performance at hand.

Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov in the Royal Ballet's "The Nutcracker" (photo: ROH YouTube)

Last Christmas, I settled into a set of plush opera house seats alongside a friend who had never set foot at the ballet before. Like many, I was using The Nutcracker as a gateway show. I figured the familiar music and family friendly storyline would make it easy to sit back and enjoy the dancing.

This strategy worked fairly well, except for a moment in the second act during the pas de deux between Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. As the dancers completed their stunning partnered section, my hands hurt from clapping. The couple took four bows, and my friend took this to mean the ballet was over. When the Cavalier stepped out onstage to finally start his solo, he turned to me with a confused look on his face: "there's more?" When the couple returned together for the grand finale, his eyes widened even further: "it just keeps coming?!"

I chuckled. I've watched classical pas de deuxs for so long that we never question the order of things. To my friend, however, these different sections were foreign and hard to grasp.

In the evening car ride home, I explained that much of classical ballet revolves around structure. Certain people dance at certain times and in certain orders.

The pinnacle of these structures, and the crème de la crème of many ballets, is the pas de deux [pas duh duh], or dance of two.

Despite its simple translation, 18th and 19th century pas de deux have a lot of rules. My friend learned this the hard way.

It may not be necessary to grasp these rules in order to enjoy a ballet, but like most art our appreciation deepens with context. Hence my twirls for today: the history and structure of the pas de deux, laid out for everyone who's curious (or who has a curious friend).

Pas de deux started in 18th century opera when performers would complete mirrored sets of steps alongside each other. In the 1700s a man and a woman actually touching was far too scandalous (gasp!), so these dances acted as their metaphorical partnering. As social barriers dropped, however, pas de deuxs became more romantic and thus required an increase of physical contact. By the mid 19th century, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov cemented the consistent structure of a grand pas de deux [grahn pas duh duh], which always relies on physical partnering between a man and a woman to display the technical and artistic beauty of a ballerina.

The grand pas de deux is a full suite of dancing performed by a male-female couple that unfolds over five distinct sections: the entrée, the adage, a male solo, a female solo, and the coda.

Neoclassical pas de deuxs don't follow any of these guidelines. Curious minds can get confused because we often drop the words "grand" and "neoclassical," calling every partnered dance a pas de deux (or just "pas" if you'd like to be exceptionally hip) in an effort to abbreviate things. In terms of understanding structure, however, this lexical difference is of utmost importance.

Some dance historians say that the grand pas de deux holds origins in the renaissance musical structure of theme and variations, which Merriam Webster defines as "a simple melody presented first in its original unadorned form then repeated several or many times with varied treatment." Often, the opening of a ballet establishes certain rhythmical, choreographic, and musical themes that each section of the pas de deux will study — the Swan Lake theme is well known example of this occurrence. I'm pretty sure this is why we still call classical ballet dances "variations."

For a more in depth study, we'll break down each part of the Don Quixote grand pas de deux, here performed by Olga Smirnova and Artem Ovcharenko from the Bolshoi Theater at a gala honoring the famous teacher Lyudmila Kovaleva.

This video comes from the Wedding Act of the ballet and starts with the flower girl dance that occurs right before Basilio and Kitri's entrance. Make note of the similar music and choreography between this group dance and the pas de deux that follows!

The whole ballet will fit together in one stylistic puzzle and the grand pas de deux represents the joy of placing that last piece.

First, the entrée.

The entrée, or entrance, starts at the very end of this flower girl dance (2:00). An entrée typically has a moderate tempo and serves as an introduction to the oncoming marathon of the main dance. The dancers move about the stage with great pageantry to grab the audience's attention. There is often bowing and a few curtsies alongside a lot of running and beckoning to the far corners of the theater. It's a dance that prepares us for the dance, leaving the couple in position to start their main endeavour. In modern day terms, we might consider this the hype number.

The Don Quixote entrée is fairly average in length, clocking in at about a minute. Entrances in other famous pas de deux, however, like this Sleeping Beauty, can be as short as 15 seconds.

Next up, the adage.

If each part of the grand pas de deux creates a hamburger, the adage (3:02) is the meat. And it might be a double patty burger. By far the longest section, the adage requires the most partnering. When couples appear at galas to perform excerpts of a grand pas de deux, they always choose the adage.

The music in an adage slows down after the entrée and then builds in resplendence as the dancers work in graceful teamwork to complete physical feats that would be impossible on one's own. An abridged list of standard movements include partnered pirouettes [peer-WET](turns), supported développés [dayv-law-PAY] and penchés [pahn-SHAY] (various types of extensions), press lifts, promenades [prawm-NAD]. In the latter, a ballerina stands en pointe with one leg lifted behind her as the dancer takes her hand to slowly turn her in a circle. See 6:50. Though it looks simple, keeping the ballerina fully straight on her tiny toe shoe is exceptionally difficult.

Repetition is also popular choreography for a grand pas de deux (and classical ballet in general). Couples will often complete the same six or eight counts several times in a row. See 4:19 and 5:28 for examples.

After this, Variation I.

Though both dancers exhaust themselves during the adage partnering, the ballerina is the one on display. New York City Ballet dancer Andrew Veyette recognizes this when he says "the best thing I can do as a partner is to kind of disappear and make sure that everybody in the audience is enjoying her performance."

In an effort to give the ballerina a chance to breathe after this display the danseur, or male dancer, usually performs his solo first.

In the Don Quixote video, however, a lead flower girl performs another solo before the Basilio solo (7:33). This intermediate variation gives both lead dancers a chance to breathe.

A typical male variation (8:53) is full of jumps. After standing behind the ballerina for so long, the danseur leaps at this chance to show off and shine. These solos are packed with explosive athleticism and therefore typically only last about a minute to a minute and a half.

The Basilio solo from Don Quixote is particularly popular for such exhibition; we like this video of Mikhail Baryshnikov's performance, especially given the top YouTube comment: "gravity was obviously on a lunch break when Baryshnikov was born." That's exactly the feeling all male dancers are going for during their grand pas de deux solos (and in life).

Next, Variation II.

After the male dancer bows, the ballerina enters for the female variation (10:22). These solos are more diverse in length, but they typically include four or five sections of repeated phrases. Kitri's variation, for example, includes one section of bourrées, one section of posé retirés [poh-ZAY ruh-tee-RAY], a section of relevé passés [ruhl-VAY pa-SAY], and a final diagonal of choreography.

Intricate footwork, impressive turns, and developed pointe work are all common tropes of a female variation.

Finally, the coda.

As the ballerina's bows end, we arrive at the coda (11:58). Typically about a minute or so long, the coda holds the same pageantry as the entrée. This time, however, the celebration is on steroids. Royal Ballet First Soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell describes it perfectly as "the ending fireworks."

Both ballerina and danseur are absolutely exhausted by now. There's a good chance neither of them can feel their legs, but the pomp of the music, the adrenaline of a finish line, and (hopefully) a thundering applause from the audience keeps them going. Now is time for all the biggest tricks: huge traveling jumps for the danseur and impressive turns from the ballerina.

The Black Swan Pas De Deux has the most famous coda in the world because of Odile's infamous sequence of 32 fouetté turns supposedly started by Pierina Legnani way back in the 1800s. With the increasing athleticism of ballerinas, however, fouettés are a staple in most classical codas today (Smirnova does 31 with a double turn in our Don Quixote film).

Despite these tricks, the couple must continue working together. Beyond the final synced phrases of dancing, dancers will tell you that they feed of of each other's silent emotional support as well. As Stix-Brunell says: "the coda is our coda."

It's the culmination of a ten minute long exhibition of teamwork set to a soundtrack that should make your heart swell. When done well, it will leave entire theaters on their feet.

And the curtain lowers for the final time.

The entrée, the adage, two solos, and a coda: a grand pas de deux. All that'll be left is the curtain call. Grand pas de deuxs are unique because of their commonality between ballets. Every 18th and 19th century ballet has at least one (if not two or three).

Sometimes, ballet critics argue that this rigidity doesn't make sense; if ballet is full of so many different stories, how does the same structure work for them all? Moreover, how does a big coda full of tricks fit into the plot of every story ballet out there? Well, it doesn't. In their book Footnotes, for example, Frank Augustyn and Shelly Tanaka say the fouettés in Swan Lake can be "an irritating disruption to the story."

In part, this is why many modern choreographers break away from the grand pas de deux to create new configurations that fit more seamlessly into their storylines. This works really well for neoclassical design, but the grand pas de deux is so ingrained in historical context that it's practically part of the 19th century plot. The familiarity of each section gives us a language through which to understand the culmination of a love story, allowing us to hone our focus on the specific performance at hand.

Even as choreographers re-stage old ballets, they often keep the original choreography for the grand pas de deux. San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson re-choreographed Swan Lake in 2009, for example, but he kept the original Petipa and Ivanov choreography for both grand pas de deuxs.

They're timeless. They're beautiful. They're quintessentially ballet. And with a little bit of context, I hope they're easy to understand.

I first published this article in the original twirls4thoughts blog, Jul. 23 2019

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Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!