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'Trio' Pays Homage to Troubled Tchaikovsky


IRVINE — It's one of the most extraordinary stories in classical music: The intense relationship between Tchaikovsky and his wealthy widowed patron Nadezhda von Meck. Despite 13 years of intimate correspondence, the two never met.

Their liaison has been touched on in film, including Ken Russell's characteristically idiosyncratic 1971 biography "The Music Lovers." Now, San Francisco choreographer Robert Sund has made it the focus of a new ballet.

"Tchaikovsky Trio," set to the composer's Piano Trio in A minor (1881), premieres on Ballet Pacifica's mixed bill tonight and Saturday at Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Sund, a former San Francisco Ballet soloist, created the dance last summer during the local troupe's third annual choreographer's workshop.

"I wanted to do something to pay homage to Tchaikovsky," whose music is integral to every ballet dancers' career, Sund said recently.

The legendary composer's life presented plenty to explore. Tchaikovsky had a brief, profoundly unhappy marriage to Antonina Milyukova, whom he nevertheless continued to support until her death in an insane asylum. His homosexuality may have contributed to his nearly lifelong, morbid depression.

Then there was his epistolary intimacy with the widow von Meck. While she generously subsidized much of his career, they corresponded voluminously. But she insisted that they never meet.

"She asked for nothing in return except his beautiful music," Sund said during a telephone interview from Memphis, where he was choreographing another new dance for Memphis Concert Ballet.

Sequences in the four-person ballet representing the couple's relationship are "full of innuendo, emotion and a lot of love," Sund said, but, dancers portraying them "don't really see each other."

Characters representing the composer's wife and a composite figure representing "the male influence in his life" complete the period-costumed cast of "Tchaikovsky Trio," Sund said.

Neoclassic in style, "it's a non-narrative ballet, really just suggesting Tchaikovsky as a person," he said, adding that he chose the "melodramatic," "very personal" Tchaikovsky Trio partly because the composer had dedicated it to a close male friend, Moscow Conservatory director Nicolai Rubinstein.

"The main inspiration for me is always the music," Sund said. "The idea for the ballet was right there when I listened to this piece."

("Tchaikovsky Trio" is one of three works to be danced to recorded music. The fourth work, "Liebeslieder Waltzes," set to the Brahms score, will have live accompaniment: two pianists and the John Alexander Singers, a group of 18 student and professional singers organized and to be led Saturday by Alexander, conductor of Orange County's Pacific Chorale.)

After beginning to put the work together, Sund became aware that the breakup of his 12-year marriage to San Francisco Ballet principal Evelyn Cisneros also figured into the mix.

"I was getting over the divorce when I choreographed this ballet," he said, "and I sort of related to the idea of a man struggling with a relationship with a woman, and the idea of . . . having a wonderful relationship with a woman you don't really know--or who isn't present--and yet not getting along with the woman you're with.

"This came out while I was working on the ballet. I suddenly realized: 'Wait a minute--this is what I'm going through.' It was therapeutic, actually."

Debate over Tchaikovsky's death in 1893 continues. One school contends that he succumbed to cholera after carelessly drinking water that had not been boiled. The other asserts that he committed suicide over a rumored affair with the nephew of a Russian aristocrat.

However the composer's life ended, Sund ends his ballet with a "sculptural tableau" of the four dancers' bodies, meant as a monument to the immortality of Tchaikovsky's music.

"He faces, for one last time, the wife character, the von Meck character, and the male influence," Sund said, "and then goes off to the great beyond."

"Tchaikovsky Trio" has been added to Ballet Pacifica's permanent repertory, and may be acquired by the Norwegian National Ballet, said Sund, a principal dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle before joining the San Francisco Ballet in 1979.

While he now spends most of his time teaching and choreographing in Europe and Japan, he said his two weeks in Orange County for the workshop were well spent. The project provides emerging dance-makers with the time, facilities and dancers to create new works.

Sund said Ballet Pacifica director Molly Lynch "made it possible for me to feel very comfortable and able to think about what I had to do, rather than worrying about a lack of time or funds or poor facilities."

* Ballet Pacifica presents the premiere of "Tchaikovsky Trio" by Robert Sund tonight at 8 and Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. , at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Also on the program: "By Lamplight" by Rick McCullough, "Personal Statement--Common Knowledge" by Tina Gerstler and "Liebeslieder Waltzes" by James Jones. A discussion about the making of a ballet will follow each evening performance. $12-$15. (714) 854-4646.

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