This morning I realized that so many of the articles I have been writing since the launch of the “Digital Spring Season” of the New York City Ballet have made reference to George Balanchine’s “Serenade” that I really owe readers a pointer to a video document of this ballet. It would not surprise me to learn that more has been written about “Serenade” than about any other ballet in the Balanchine canon. From my own point of view, it was among the first (if not the first) of the Balanchine ballets that I saw in performance, dating all the way back to my undergraduate days, when I saw it performed by the Boston Ballet.
One likely reason for the sheer volume of writings about “Serenade” is that it was the very first ballet that Balanchine created in the United States. More importantly, as all those previous references to “Serenade” indicate, it served as a foundation upon which Balanchine would create subsequent “abstract” ballets. That modifier “abstract” refers heavily to the extent to which Balanchine would begin to create a new ballet by thoroughly studying the score of the music he planned to use and then creating a piano reduction of that score. Some might think that “abstract” also entailed a lack of narrative. While it is probably true that most of Balanchine’s musical selections were not based on narrative (like tone poems), elements of narrative emerge in the final movement of “Serenade,” even if the overall scheme is an abstract one.
The music behind “Serenade” is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 in C major, which he called “Serenade for Strings.” The composition is in four movements, opening with a conventional sonata-form structure. The next two movements are titled “Valse” and “Élégie;” and the final movement is an orchestral account of a Russian theme.
The dancer that arrives late at the conclusion of the first movement of “Serenade” (screen shot from the video being discussed)
There is a sense that Balanchine will willing to “let things happen” while working with Tchaikovsky’s score. Thus, when he was rehearsing the first movement, one of the dancers was late and basically walked in and joined the corps while they were executing Balanchine’s steps. Balanchine liked the effect and decided to keep it.
Similarly, during a rehearsal of the “Russian theme” movement, one of the dancers collapsed from exhaustion. Balanchine left her there, while all the other dancers departed. He then decided that the “Élégie” would switch places with the “Russian theme,” dealing with “what happened next” after the girl collapsed. “What happened next” turned out to provide the most narrative of the ballet’s four movements, dealing with the complexity of one male and three females. In the video that John Clifford uploaded, probably a digitization of a television program entitled Balanchine in America, the three females (Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, and Maria Calegari) are barely distinguishable. There may not be an explicit story behind the relationships among the four characters depicted by the choreography; but it is clear that narration is taking place, even if it is in an unfamiliar language.
Indeed, over the entire scope of the three preceding movements, there is virtually no sense of narration, probably because the individuals tend to be subordinated to the corps dancers. Furthermore, the “action” taking place in the corps emerges as an ongoing interplay between homophony and polyphony. It should surprise no one that such an interplay emerges in the music that Tchaikovsky wrote for the string ensemble. However, Balanchine seldom (if ever) mimics Tchaikovsky’s approaches to such interplay. Rather, he invents his own in ways that are consistently compatible with the flow of the music from the beginning to the conclusion of each of the four movements.
The resulting inventions are so prolific and so diverse that “Serenade” is one of those ballets in which the attentive viewer is likely to discover new caches of detail each time (s)he sees this ballet performed. Indeed, the ballet recently passed the 85th anniversary of its creation; and “old-timers” (myself included) are as likely to keep encountering fresh impressions as young dance students learning the choreography for the first time. Hopefully, that freshness will still be with audiences when the ballet approaches its centennial year.