- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

There is no real mystery about the reasons for the ballet's long-lasting popularity: It is staggeringly beautiful; the choreography is a radiant response to Tchaikovsky's luscious musical score of the same name; and its iconic images are stunning and memorable.
During the past few years it has been the single most performed ballet at the Kennedy Center. Two years ago it was danced by the Pennsylvania Ballet at the Kennedy Center's Balanchine Festival. Last winter it was performed at the Kirov Opera and Ballet gala. It was on the Washington Ballet's fall program in October, and it will be danced again the end of this month by the San Francisco Ballet. It also is likely to turn up next fall on the Suzanne Farrell Ballet programs at the Tchaikovsky Festival.
"Serenade," the very first ballet created by Mr. Balanchine when he came to this country in the early '30s, is in repertoires of major companies all over the world from London to Paris to St. Petersburg. It is sought after by minor companies, as well, and it is estimated that 100 companies around the globe have danced it.
The ballet begins with 17 women in long, pale blue tutus standing in diagonal lines, right arms raised to shield them from the moonlight. Slowly they bring their arms down and hold both hands low. Their feet are pressed together, pointing forward.
Suddenly their feet open sharply into ballet's first position, and you see the transformation of young women into ballet dancers. It is a movement so simple yet suggestive that when Martha Graham first saw it she is reported to have said that tears came to her eyes because it was a simplicity that was the hallmark of a master.
The choreography for the corps is a wonder, full of swirling patterns with the dancers skipping, hopping and running in fluid, dissolving formations: women coalescing into circles, moving at top speed in dizzying pirouettes; a long diagonal line swirling off stage in a giant froth of arms and flyaway skirts. Matching the pulse of Tchaikovsky's score, the dancing is breathtaking and exalted.
"Serenade" was clearly special to Mr. Balanchine. He kept it almost continually in the repertory, so it never was in danger of becoming a "lost" ballet. Over the years he made small changes, reinstating sections where he had cut the music. (Many years ago Mr. Balanchine, who was deeply religious and superstitious, spoke to me about the change, saying, "Now when I see Tchaikovsky, it will be all right.").
Fairly late in his life, he had the women dancers let down their hair in the final moments of "Serenade" whenever he did that in a ballet it was a sign that the woman had become a creature of fantasy. When ballerina Suzanne Farrell returned to the company after an absence of several years, she said she was nervous about learning this new move, having to cope with undoing her hair in the middle of the action.

Mr. Balanchine not only created a huge body of work unprecedented in the history of ballet, he developed a sharper, swifter technique through his School of American Ballet and molded such great ballerinas as Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clerq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride, Violette Verdy, Gelsey Kirkland, and ultimately Miss Farrell herself. He also took special pains to encourage a keenly attentive audience to look at movement for its own sake.
As an example, he wanted the audience to really see movement but not dwell on it as incidental to a dramatic plot. So while there is more to "Serenade" than the ravishing movements of its corps, the choreographer originally tried to dampen reading a lot of emotion into it.
In the final section of the dance, a woman has fallen to the floor (at that moment she uncoils her hair) and another woman enters, walking slowly behind a man, her body pressed tightly against his, one hand covering his eyes, "blinding" him. They approach the woman on the floor, she rises, and the man dances with one, then the other, as well as women who rush across stage, leaping into his arms.
Finally the original trio remains onstage; the woman who entered with the man stands behind him; the fallen woman is again on the floor. At a dramatic moment in the music, the standing woman flaps her arms like large wings, encloses the man with possessive arm gestures, and leads him away.
The woman on the floor slowly rises and runs to a mother figure. Three men lift her high in the air, carry her aloft like an infanta. She spreads her arms backward as handmaidens follow her slowly en pointe while she is borne heavenward.
With his audience facing some intriguing dramatic encounters, Mr. Balanchine tried to lead them to look first at his imaginative use of movement.
He once wrote about that aspect of "Serenade" and many companies copied his remarks in their program notes when they performed the ballet:
"One day, when all the girls rushed off the floor area we were using as a stage, one of the girls fell and began to cry. I kept this bit in the dance. Another day, one of the girls was late for class, so I left that in too. I've gone into a little detail here because many people think there is a concealed story in the ballet. There is not."
But Bernard Taper, in his biography of Mr. Balanchine, tells of a surprising conversation he had one night after a performance of "Serenade," when the choreographer likened the man in the trio to a figure controlled by a figure of destiny, who had other plans for him than the pursuit of a woman. When Mr. Taper asked him if he had told his dancers that, Mr. Balanchine replied in mock horror, "God forbid."
Having trained an audience to see his dances, he could later soften his stance and write: "Because Tchaikovsky's score has different qualities suggestive of different emotions and situations in its danceable four movements, 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."
He added that "Making a ballet is a choreographer's way of showing how he understands a piece of music."
For its hauntingly lovely response to the sweeping score, for its energy and ardor, for its exaltation of women to what Mr. Balanchine felt was their ideal state of grace as ballet heroines, for its subtle but haunting evocation of figures caught in the hand of fate, "Serenade" exerts a timeless spell. It retains the freshness of youth 69 years after it was first created.wonder, full of swirling patterns with the dancers skipping, hopping and running in fluid, dissolving formations: women coalescing into circles, moving at top speed in dizzying pirouettes; a long diagonal line swirling off stage in a giant froth of arms and flyaway skirts. Matching the pulse of Tchaikovsky's score, the dancing is breathtaking and exalted.
"Serenade" was clearly special to Mr. Balanchine. He kept it almost continually in the repertory, so it never was in danger of becoming a "lost" ballet. Over the years he made small changes, reinstating sections where he had cut the music. (Many years ago Mr. Balanchine, who was deeply religious and superstitious, spoke to me about the change, saying, "Now when I see Tchaikovsky, it will be all right.").
Fairly late in his life, he had the women dancers let down their hair in the final moments of "Serenade" whenever he did that in a ballet it was a sign that the woman had become a creature of fantasy. When ballerina Suzanne Farrell returned to the company after an absence of several years, she said she was nervous about learning this new move, having to cope with undoing her hair in the middle of the action.

Mr. Balanchine not only created a huge body of work unprecedented in the history of ballet, he developed a sharper, swifter technique through his School of American Ballet and molded such great ballerinas as Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clerq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride, Violette Verdy, Gelsey Kirkland, and ultimately Miss Farrell herself. He also took special pains to encourage a keenly attentive audience to look at movement for its own sake.
As an example, he wanted the audience to really see movement but not dwell on it as incidental to a dramatic plot. So while there is more to "Serenade" than the ravishing movements of its corps, the choreographer originally tried to dampen reading a lot of emotion into it.
In the final section of the dance, a woman has fallen to the floor (at that moment she uncoils her hair) and another woman enters, walking slowly behind a man, her body pressed tightly against his, one hand covering his eyes, "blinding" him. They approach the woman on the floor, she rises, and the man dances with one, then the other, as well as women who rush across stage, leaping into his arms.
Finally the original trio remains onstage; the woman who entered with the man stands behind him; the fallen woman is again on the floor. At a dramatic moment in the music, the standing woman flaps her arms like large wings, encloses the man with possessive arm gestures, and leads him away.
The woman on the floor slowly rises and runs to a mother figure. Three men lift her high in the air, carry her aloft like an infanta. She spreads her arms backward as handmaidens follow her slowly en pointe while she is borne heavenward.
With his audience facing some intriguing dramatic encounters, Mr. Balanchine tried to lead them to look first at his imaginative use of movement.
Bernard Taper, in his biography of Mr. Balanchine, tells of a surprising conversation he had one night after a performance of "Serenade," when the choreographer likened the man in the trio to a figure controlled by a figure of destiny, who had other plans for him than the pursuit of a woman. When Mr. Taper asked him if he had told his dancers that, Mr. Balanchine replied in mock horror, "God forbid."
Having trained an audience to see his dances, he could later soften his stance and write: "Because Tchaikovsky's score has different qualities suggestive of different emotions and situations in its danceable four movements, 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."
He added that "Making a ballet is a choreographer's way of showing how he understands a piece of music."
For its hauntingly lovely response to the sweeping score, for its energy ]and ardor, for its exaltation of women to what Mr. Balanchine felt was their ideal state of grace as ballet heroines, for its subtle but haunting evocation of figures caught in the hand of fate, "Serenade" exerts a timeless spell. It retains the freshness of youth 69 years after it was first created.


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