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Pas de what?

How this dance for two has stood the test of time.


Published: 10 Jan 2020

Time taken : >15mins

It takes two to pas de deux.

We give you the low-down on how the pas de deux has captured public imagination and held our fascination for over 100 years.

Why the pas de deux

Considered the pièce de résistance of a full-length classical ballet, the pas de deux (pronounced pah-duh-duh) is a preeminent display of technical mastery and athleticism combined with effortless elegance and grace. It encapsulates the essence of ballet in two bodies – maintaining absolute composure while executing moves that don’t come naturally to the human body. It takes years of training and conditioning, on top of much coordination and some say, chemistry, for partners to pull off any pas de deux. Not forgetting theatrics, musicality, corsets and sometimes lots of tulle.

For female dancers, the pas de deux is an opportunity to achieve positions and moves that she might not be able to on her own. Typically, in a pas de deux, the male dancer acts as the support and he does all the heavy lifting, stabilising and turning to profile his partner’s form and technique.

The evolution of the pas de deux

The pas de deux did not begin as a major part of a ballet. It was only in the late 18th and 19th century, thanks to two middle-aged men, the great French ballet master and choreographer Marius Petipa (1818 – 1910) with music by Piotr Tchaikovsky, that it took on its importance in a ballet. Petipa created over 50 ballets in his lifetime and is recognised for codifying the pas de deux and reinventing the corps de ballet to maximise the potential of the stage.

By the early 20th century, ballet deviated from its Franco-Russian roots and so did the revered Petipa pas de deux. Reflecting the cultural movements at the time, choreographers based in New York and London such as George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan and John Neumeier reinterpreted tradition and established the neoclassical style.

As it turns out, Balanchine’s flexed feet and turned-in legs were just the beginning. The ’80s brought the formidable vision and talent of William Forsythe, who wrung ballet inside out once again. And as the 21st century rolled around, dancemakers from the West such as Crystal Pite, Justin Peck, Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor now combine balletic techniques with modern dance and pedestrian movements.

What’s in a traditional pas de deux?

In its most classical form, it consists of four parts.

1. Entrée – The opening
This acts as an introduction for the couple. Expect a fair bit of pageantry—dancers sweeping across the stage, introducing the audience to his or her partner.

2. Adagio – “at a slow tempo”
Dancers come together for a segment that consists of slow, graceful and controlled movements.

3. Variation – solo dances
The dancers separate for their variations, which are solo performances, typically made up of a challenging combination of adagio (slow controlled movements), jetés (jumps with legs extended) and fouetté turns.

4. Coda – The closing
The dancers reunite for a grand piece with breath-taking turns and spectacular lifts. Look out for the promenade (a dancer holds a pose and her partner turns her), fish dive and the présage (the dancer is on her partner's shoulders).

Standout pas de deux across the centuries

Giselle, Pas de deux, Act II

Polina Semionova and Vladimir Shklyarov, Mariinsky Ballet, 2008
Choreography: Jean Corali and Jules Perrot
Music: Adolphe Adam
First performed: 1841

Oh Giselle. We love Giselle, the epitome of Romantic Ballet with a feminist subtext. In Giselle, there are Wilis, spirits of scorned women who take revenge by dancing men to death in the night – hell hath no such fury. The fragile peasant girl Giselle is deceived by a nobleman Albrecht and dies of shock and heartbreak. In Act II, the Wilis attempt to kill Albrecht and the real kicker is Giselle begging for mercy for her love through a beautiful pas de deux. She refuses to join the Wilis army and rests in eternal peace, while Albrecht escapes haunted but unharmed.

First performed in 1841, Giselle the ballet has never rested in peace. It is significant for several reasons: it was the first full-length ballet performed on pointe; it was groundbreaking to have a female protagonist and had its score and choreography created simultaneously. The ballet features in most companies’ repertoire today.

The Sleeping Beauty, Grand Pas de deux, Act III

Alina Somova and Xander Parish
Choreography: Marius Petipa
Music: Tchaikovsky
First performed: 1890

Widely regarded as the quintessential fairytale ballet, The Sleeping Beauty was the second ballet—the first was Swan Lake—that Tchaikovsky composed for. It’s his longest work – the lush and dramatic score runs for close to three hours. The Sleeping Beauty premiered in 1890 in St Petersburg to lukewarm reviews but gained traction among Russian audiences at the turn of the century after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893.

Act III of this fairy tale is essentially a grand party for the happily-ever-after that is to come. The scene opens with the royal wedding between Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré, presided over by the Lilac Fairy, and the couple perform the grand pas de deux as the finale.

Swan Lake, Black Swan Pas de deux, Act III

Ekaterina Kondaurova and Timur Askerov, Mariinksy Ballet, 2013
Choreography: Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Music: Tchaikovsky
First performed: 1895

The first Swan Lake created in 1877 was a flop but thankfully in 1895, it was rescued by long-time collaborators Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The pair remade the ballet into what it is today, where Petipa’s masterful dancemaking combined with Tchaikovsky’s dramatic music has seduced more than just the Prince. With its famed 32 fouetté turns, the Black Swan Pas de deux is without a doubt, one of the most anticipated moments in ballet today and the ballet, a mainstay in many company repertoires.

Part of the undying charm of Swan Lake is its timeless story of love and betrayal. In Act II, the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart disguises his daughter Odile as the beautiful swan queen, Odette (a princess bewitched to turn into a swan at night). Odile is vivacious, confident and coy, and Prince Siegfried—oblivious, besotted and seduced—falls under her spell. Eventually declaring his love for Odile, he unwittingly condemns Odette to her death. And she dies.

Romeo and Juliet, Balcony Pas de deux

Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov, Bolshoi Ballet, 2011
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
First performed: 1938

Romeo and Juliet once had a happy ending. In the original Russian ballet by Adrian Piotrovsky, Romeo is stopped by Friar Laurence (the family advisor) from killing himself, and as they struggle, Juliet regains consciousness. The lovers dance and live happily ever after. Thankfully, no other choreographers took to this ending in their later interpretations, save for Mark Morris in 2008, where the dead lovers resurrect from their deathbed and ascend into an underworld paradise. Jeez.

The latest interpretation of Romeo and Juliet for the Bolshoi Ballet by New York-based Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky strips the tragic love story of more ballet clichés. In Ratmansky’s ballet, Mercutio is not in love with Romeo and an unconscious Juliet doesn’t pose as Romeo parades her around the stage in the final death scene, among other tired episodes. He didn’t do away with the timeless crowd favourite: Juliet on the balcony and Romeo watching her from below at the end of Act I, which culminates in a playful pas de deux capturing the thrill of first love.


Originally danced by Diana Adams and Arthur Michell, New York City Ballet
Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
First performed: 1957

Russian-born Balanchine has been referred to as the “father of American ballet” and Agon was his gift to the world of dance – a minimalist marriage between the classical and the contemporary, embodying the technique of classical ballet while throwing aside tired ballet conventions. In the 1950s, Balanchine redefined the way the world saw or thought about ballet, which at the time was still heavily influenced by the famous Russian-Petipa exports. The ballet director broke away from the theatrical style of Russian school, creating a less demonstrative “American” style that worked for his minimalist ballets.

I beg your pardon. Russia is the home of romantic ballet. The home of classic ballet is now America.

Balanchine's reply to an interviewer for Radio Moscow in 1962 (The New York Times)

Originally danced by Diana Adams and Arthur Michell from New York City Ballet in 1957, Agon was a plotless—the dancers could be sculptures, muses or lovers—masterpiece created for 12 dancers, dressed in black and white leotards and tights. Revolutionary not just in its groundbreaking choreography, Agon featured a black male dancer and white female dancer in its emotionally charged pas de deux – a deliberate choice by Balanchine, in response or perhaps in criticism of American society in the ’50s.

In The Night

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba, San Franciso Ballet
Choreography: Jerome Robbins
Music: Chopin
First performed: 1970

A three-part meditation on the different stages of love, Robbins’ In The Night is a modern classic and an ode to the romantic pas de deux, accompanied by the music of Chopin. It’s romantic, tender and beautiful, in stark contrast to the tumultuous genesis of this choreography. The story goes like this: a heartbroken Robbins retreats to a beach house where two friends egg him to experiment with LSD. It was a bad trip. He was convinced that he had transformed into a glass table that was about to shatter into a million pieces, and he reportedly spent the next forty-eight hours curled up, motionless and in fear. Post-LSD trauma, a distraught and distracted Robbins went back to work and snapped his Achilles tendon while demonstrating a step in class. He eventually finished choreographing In The Night in crutches.

With the New York City Ballet in the ’50s, Robbins was a notable dancer who also worked on Broadway and in 1957, this culminated in West Side Story, which is essentially a modern Romeo and Juliet set in the gritty streets of New York. A prolific choreographer, Robbins created dances for the stage, film and television.

Lady of the Camellias, “Purple” Pas de deux, Act I

Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov, Hamburg Ballet, 2018
Choreography: John Neumeier
Music: Chopin
First performed: 1978

Based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, Lady of the Camellias is 20th century work that has the structure and all the dramatic tragedy of a ballet in the Romantic era but none of the ethereal or supernatural. First created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1978, Neumeier’s ballet has earned a reputation for its dramatic intensity, inventive choreography and sublime pas de deux. In Act I, a courtesan Marguerite falls for a well-to-do scholar Armand and the dancers perform the “Purple” Pas de deux, a passionate demonstration of Armand's love for her.

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated

Originally performed by Sylvie Guillem, Laurent Hilaire, Paris Opera Ballet
Choreography: William Forsythe
Music: Thom Willems, Leslie Stuck
First performed: 1987

Its title refers to two golden cherries, suspended over the stage. A ballsy work with a ballsy title, Forsythe’s In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated is an electrifying pas de deux that amplifies, almost sadistically, a dancer’s technique, power and lines. In this revolutionary work, Forsythe dissects the vocabulary of ballet and strips it of classicism, for the world to see ballet for what it is – precision, strength and aggression (on the body).

'I had to find my way around Balanchine, Petipa, Cranko, MacMillan, the whole crowd,' he once explained. 'I realised I had to move on.'

Forsythe in a 2015 interview with The Guardian

Set to Thom Willem’s electronic score, this pas de deux was commissioned by then Director of Paris Opera Ballet Rudolf Nureyev, and its first cast included dancers Sylvie Guillem, Laurent Hilaire, Isabelle Guérin and Manuel Legris, who shot to fame because of this pas de deux. A year later, it became the second act in Forsythe’s full-length four-act postmodern ballet Impressing the Czar, a scathing and humorous commentary on the history of ballet and the economics of western culture, which culminates in a raucous final act: dancers dressed as school girls dancing circles around Mr Pnut, a character that alludes to Saint Sebastian. In 2018, this piece was presented as part of Esplanade’s da:ns series at Esplanade Theatre, performed by Dresden Semperoper Ballett.

Watch dancers Elena Vostrotina and Raphael Coumes-Marquet from Semperoper Ballett

Contributed by:

Miranda Chan

A writer and worker bee at Esplanade.

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