The first performance took place on 9 December 1942, staged by the Kirov Ballet while in Perm (Russia) during the Second World War evacuation, and was broadcast on the radio. The principal dancers were: Natalia Dudinskaya (Gayane), Nikolai Zubkovsky (Karen), Konstantin Sergeyev (Armen), Tatanya Vecheslova (Nune), and Boris Shavrov (Giko). The conductor was Pavel Feldt. The most famous parts of the ballet are the "Sabre Dance", which has been covered by many pop artists, and the "Adagio", which featured prominently in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Khachaturian's original Gayane was the story of a young Armenian woman whose patriotic convictions conflict with her personal feelings on discovering her husband's treason. In later years the plot was modified several times, the resultant story emphasizing romance over nationalistic zeal.
The ballet, based on an earlier ballet composed in 1939 by Khachaturian called Happiness, was created when the Kirov ballet was in Perm. Khachaturian started composing the score in autumn 1941 and the ballet was first mounted on 3 December 1942 on the small stage of the Perm state theatre. Despite these limitations, the effect was profound; in effect, the message was that the company was continuing to exist and to produce new ballets, despite the very hard times. Anisimova invited different dancers to participate in her ballet, dancers who happened to be in the city at that time; there was a sense of camaraderie and combined effort which suited the positive feeling of the ballet itself. The composition, the music, the dancing, all together created something which, regardless of the weaknesses in the libretto, expressed the triumph of dancing and its many different possibilities.
The orchestral score calls for:
Many elements of interethnic love, betrayal and friendship interact in an Armenian setting. The central character is a young woman named Gayane, who works in a kolkhoz in a mountainous district near the national border.
In the kolkhoz, farmers are busy reaping cotton. Among them are heroine Gayane, her father Ovanes, brother Armen and younger sister Nune. They are all models of hard work with the only exception of Gayane's husband Giko, a lazy drunkard. She admonishes Giko for his misconduct and this escalates into a quarrel. Then arrives Kazakov, commander of the Soviet frontier guard, and a dance of welcome begins. Seeing Gayane present a bouquet to Kazakov, Giko violently snatches the bouquet from her and ignoring everybody's reproach, disappears.
Gayane's home. Everyone is consoling Gayane who is deploring her husband's misconduct. The singing voices of carpet weavers are heard. As Giko returns, all go out. Gayane sings her child Ripsime to sleep. Three smugglers come to see Giko. They conspire to share the public money they have embezzled, to set fire to the cotton warehouse and to flee abroad. Overhearing their conspiracy, Gayane admonishes her husband, but he thrusts her into another room and locks her up.