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The Transformation of Balanchine's "Serenade"

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Last March, Robert Greskovic and Alastair Macaulay presented on the subject of the transformation of Balanchine's "Serenade at the NY Public Library for Performing Arts.  Here is Joan Acocella's preview in "The New Yorker":



Rebecca King and Michael Sean Breeden spoke with Macaulay about the research on "Serenade" for their podcast "Conversations on Dance," which can be streamed from here or iTunes, where you can subscribe to the podcast or listen to individual episodes:



This is the link to the supplemental info reference in the podcast, which includes an imbedded video with timestamped listing of pivotal moments discussed in the podcast:



For those in or visiting NYC, the March presentation is available at the Library.  I believe videos in the Library have to be requested in advance, so check before you make plans to go.

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Meanwhile, we have that wonderful little note from Acocella, with its evocations of Serenade - and, I would add, Balanchine's art in general: It's "a little odd," and, "you’re not quite sure."  A great little introduction, or re-introduction, to Balanchine's world.

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Fascinating podcast and good followup questions of Alistair Macaulay by the moderators. AM's whole 50 page essay is in the Winter 2016 / 2017 issue of Ballet Review. Ruthanne Boris' account of the making of the original 1934 "Serenade" is in Robert Gottlieb's "Reading Dance" (remaindered copies may still be around at bookstores, I found mine at Green Apple in SF). 


After hearing the podcast, I began searching through New York Times reviews to try to pin down the changes Balanchine made in "Serenade" over the years. I've posted a selection below.


They're all written by the longtime Times dance critic John Martin who was initially fairly antipathetic towards Balanchine's choreography, gradually becoming more sympathetic and finally an all-out fan by the late fifties. A sort of "unreliable narrator" but a valuable one. Also some of his reservations about the two ballerina version vs the "brilliance and subtlety" of the six part one might be valid. Maybe someone here at Ballet Alert remembers earlier "Serenades" – ultimately a 40 year work-in-progress –  and can comment.



Mar 2, 1935. American Ballet at Adelphi Theatre. “Serenade” to the music of Tchaikovsky, opens the evening. It is a serviceable rather than inspired work. No doubt Mr. Balanchine had his problems in devising choreography for an inexperienced company, but whatever the reasons, “Serenade” lacks spontaneity to a great extent.


Oct 18, 1940. Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Fifty-first Street Theatre. Balanchine’s “Serenade” will also improve with further performance, for it is essentially an ensemble work, and last night it was almost anything else. As a composition it is fresh, impeccably neat and chic, with an admirable musicianship always evident under its line and phrase. It is almost a pure abstraction, a “music visualization,” with only a hint of classroom “center practice” in its opening movement and vague suggestion of program in its final section. For those who have the inclination to go with the choreographer along his rather rarefied way, the experience is eminently worth the effort for the first two movements – the “Sonatina” and the “Waltz.” For the final section here called “Adagio” but originally “Elegy,” there may be reservations. It is referred to in the program notes as somber and tragic, but it proves to be instead both lush and disingenuous.


Marie-Jeanne of the American Ballet Caravan was  guest artist, in a single solo role, and gave an excellent account of herself, with more flowers than you could shake a stick at as her reward.


Oct 11, 1941. Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House. The only other novelty of the evening was the first appearance here of Alexandra Danilova in the central role of Balanchine’s “Serenade." It is a modest role both in proportions and in style, and not ideally suited to the spirited and dashing Danilova, who is inclined to burst its seams, so to speak. Nor does the production as a whole do justice to the work, for it tends to transmute Balanchine’s delicate mathematics into merely adding two and two and getting four. This is certainly not the most glamorous of Balanchine’s creations, but it is perhaps the simplest in texture, the most integrated and accordingly the most demanding. It also happens to be formally quite the most satisfying.


Sep 3, 1954. NYCB at City Center. George Balanchine’s “Serenade” opened the evening’s proceedings at their highest level. This aged but perennially lovely piece is always full of surprises, for Mr. Balanchine after twenty years at its is still playing around with it creatively.


In the course of its life its solo passages have been danced from time to time by anywhere from one to six ballerinas in a performance.


Divided up in ever new combinations, sometimes with tall girls where small ones formerly appeared, lyric ones replacing bravura ones, it takes on something of the quality of a kaleidoscope. Fortunately it is basically that kind of piece, and the variations played upon it by its choreographer make it continually inviting.


This season it is being done with three major soloists, Diana Adams, Patricia Wilde and Jillana …


Sep 8, 1958. With the first presentation this season of “Serenade” on its Saturday afternoon program, the New York City Ballet can finally be said to be officially in residence at the City Center, for this is in a sense its “signature” ballet. It is the first work created by George Balanchine (to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings”) for the company’s remote ancestor, the American Ballet, in 1934. Not only has it stood the test of time, but it also has actually grown in value.


… Of particular interest was Miss Kent’s fresh and personal reading of the phrase, especially in the waltz, but the whole performance was young and lyric and enchanting.


Aug 29, 1959. NYCB at City Center. The evening opened with “Serenade,” in which Mr. Balanchine has once again divided the feminine roles between two ballerinas, instead of calling five or six into service. The latter method gives, perhaps, more brilliance and more subtlety to the work, but the present method also has its merits. To Jillana have fallen the earthy and romantic passages, while Melissa Hayden is all air and fire… 


Sep 6, 1959. It is nice to have Jillana back in the company after an absence of some three years. She is a dancer with a quality of her own, generally contralto in color, terre-a-terre, voluptuous and definitely “female.” Her port de bras especially has a lovely timbre, as if her arms were consciously resisting the pressure of the atmosphere through which they move.


For Balanchine to cast her opposite Melissa Hayden in “Serenade,” dividing between them all the passages that belong to the leading figures, is to give the work as a whole a totally different color from the kaleidoscopic variety it possesses when half a dozen ballerinas share its materials. Now it is more unified, if perhaps more conventional, in development. Certainly it is more “contrasty,” with Miss Hayden representing air and fire and Jillana earth and water… 


Edited by Quiggin
spelling in last entry of 1959
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