George Balanchine’s “Serenade” – A Brief History of the Ballet

Written by Robyn Jutsum

As we welcome a new year and aspire to a better, more unified, more peaceful road ahead, we are pleased to focus our attention on January’s theme, George Balanchine’s Serenade! We are thoroughly enjoying dancing through the month with our Serenade-inspired cardio ballet combos.

If you are interested in participating in this month’s virtual performance, be sure to join Jennifer for her classes on Mondays and Saturdays to learn her combo, check out our IGTV on Instagram featuring Jennifer’s breakdown, and/or sign up for our *free* dress rehearsal on Zoom on Sunday, January 24th (sign up as you would for class).

This month we will be featuring Deepa’s combo for Ballet for a Cause on Friday, January 22nd. All proceeds will go to the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. Learn more about Ballet for a Cause here. We are also looking forward to this month’s *free* Sips and Clips (sign up like you would for class) where we will take a look at its history and watch clips of the ballet.

Serenade Photo by Paul Kolnik, 2015, Ashley Bouder and dancers of NYCB

Photo by Paul Kolnik, 2015, Ashley Bouder and dancers of NYCB

Deemed a “milestone in dance history” by the George Balanchine Trust, Balanchine’s Serenade was his first original full-length ballet in the United States and is a recognized favorite in New York City Ballet’s repertoire. Premiering in June of 1934, Serenade was initially set on students at the School of American Ballet as a lesson in stage and rehearsal technique and etiquette.

Serenade is considered not only a hallmark of Balanchine’s choreographic resume but also a cornerstone of the Balanchine style of training and movement quality.

Toni Bentley noted Balanchine’s influence in a reflection piece on the ballet for the Wall Street Journal. In 2010, Bentley wrote, “He brought a kind of democracy into the hierarchical land of ballet classicism, lifting it from its dusty 19th-century splendor, and created, simultaneously, an aristocracy for American dancers who had none.”

Serenade Photo by Andrea Mohin, 2014, dancers of NYCB

Photo by Andrea Mohin, 2014, dancers of NYCB

Edwin Denby, an American dance critic, poet, and novelist of the 20th century, described the inception and delivery of this concept:

“The thrill of Serenade depends on the sweetness of the bond between all the young dancers.  The dancing and the behavior are as exact as in a strict ballet class. The bond is made by the music, by the hereditary classic steps, and by a collective look, the dancers in action have unconsciously – their American young look. That local look had never before been used as a dramatic effect in classic ballet.”

Because the ballet was created early on in Balanchine’s choreographic reign, viewing American dancers performing choreography designed for them was a relatively new concept stateside.

Serenade was first performed by a professional company, the American Ballet, the following spring in March 1935 at the Adelphi Theater in New York.

Set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48, the ballet is performed by dancers in blue against a blue background. The original set was designed by Gaston Longchamp, however, from 1941 on, it has been performed without scenery, only a blue backdrop. It is divided into four parts: Sonatina, Waltz, Russian Dance, and Elegy. As marked in New York City Ballet’s notes and credits, the piece ends on a melancholy note, with the last two movements danced to Tchaikovsky’s score in reverse order.

Although technically a plotless ballet, Balanchine himself wrote of the influence Tchaikovsky’s music has on the journey of his movement. He writes,

“Because Tchaikovsky’s score, though it was not composed for the ballet, has in its danceable four movements different qualities suggestive of different emotions and human situations, parts of the ballet seem to have a story:  the apparently ‘pure’ dance takes on a kind of plot.  But this plot, inherent in the score, contains many stories – it is many things to many listeners to the music, and many things to many people who see the ballet.” (“New Complete Stories of the Great Ballets,” 1968)

Serenade Final Moment Photo by Paul Kolnik, 2003, dancers of NYCB

Photo by Paul Kolnik, 2003, dancers of NYCB

Serenade final moment Photo by Stephen A'Court, 2019, dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet

Photo by Stephen A’Court, 2019, dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Ballet, over time, has evolved. The original version did not have the four distinct movements. At one point, a pas de deux was put in. The costumes, the number of dancers on stage, and the number of sections have all been privy to alterations. As Joan Acocella writes for The New Yorker in “A Discussion on George Balanchine’s Serenade,”

“It is a story about hope. If you are young and don’t know anything or have anything, you can change that. If you aren’t beautiful, you can become beautiful.”

 

Bibliography

“New Stories of the Great Ballets” (1968) – George Balanchine

“The 101 Stories of the Great Ballets” (1975)  – George Balanchine

“Apollo’s Angels” (2010) – Jennifer Homans

https://www.balanchine.com/Ballet/Serenade

https://culturalpolicy.princeton.edu/sites/culturalpolicy/files/wp46-steichen.pdf

https://www.louisvilleballet.org/backstage/2019/09/george-balanchines-serenade-choreographers-notes/

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/28/the-creation-of-balanchines-serenade

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/04/20/603589940/shall-we-dance-balanchine-sets-tchaikovsky-in-motion

https://www.nycballet.com/discover/ballet-repertory/serenade/

https://www.pbt.org/the-company/artistic/repertoire/serenade/

https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703467004575463543929815752

 

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