A former ballerina searches for meaning in George Balanchine's first American ballet.
by Toni Bentley (Pantheon, 283 pp., $30)
In response to one of the several full-length versions of George Balanchine’s 1934 ballet Serenade available on YouTube, one commenter writes, “If you have a friend who says, ‘ballet isn't for me’ take him/her to this, not Swan Lake, not Giselle, not Sleeping Beauty. . . .If they don't love ballet after this, they won't love it at all.’” I agree. Serenade is a ballet of such singular beauty, mystery, and complex evolution, it’s not only worth seeing, it’s also worth reading about. Toni Bentley gives us the opportunity in Serenade: A Balanchine Story.
Some ballets tell stories and others don’t. Serenade falls somewhere in between. Although Balanchine offered hints about the work’s meaning, he never fully explained it, leaving dancers and audiences to speculate. Bentley, who as a member of the New York City Ballet in the 1970s and ‘80s performed in Serenade more than fifty times, argues that it’s about the “birth of [a female] artist.”
Fair enough. It begins with seventeen women of ostensibly equal rank performing ballet’s most fundamental steps. It then proceeds to more intricate movements, partnering, and the ineffable concluding cortege in which a single ballerina is borne aloft by three men who move toward an ethereal light.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The Russian-born Balanchine, who emigrated to the United States via Europe, claimed that he created Serenade merely to give his novice American dancers “some idea of how dancing on stage differs from classwork.” So much for meaning.
Nevertheless, he teased something deeper now and again. Ruthanna Boris, an original cast member, recalled how one day early in the choreographic process, he “started talking about Germany. . .‘There [is] an awful man there [Hitler]. He looks like me but he has mustache. The people know him, they love him. When they see him, all people do like that for him. [Balanchine put his arm up in the Heil, Hitler salute.]”
Balanchine called for a similar gesture from the dancers, which alarmed his Jewish sponsor enough to urge a change. He then bent the girls’ elbows slightly and angled their arms rightward as they faced the audience, effecting a gentler posture that has since become iconic. He suggested that his inspiration for placing these girls in diagonal rows across the stage came from the orange groves of California, even though he had yet to visit the state.
Bentley presents such lore with wry bemusement, knowing that “trickster” Balanchine preferred his work to speak for itself. Perhaps it does, but for Serenade at least, Bentley provides nearly minute-by-minute guidance for any takers.
In the ballet’s final episode, during which the men carry the vertical ballerina off the stage trailed by seven female attendants, she breaks down the mechanics of the perilous maneuver, relates her own experience performing it. (“As I lean back, my face is now flat up and I see past the shadowed outlines of the truss pipes, cables, lights, and the bottom edges of scenery.”) She tells us what the ascendant ballerina represents: a modern heroine whose “purpose is no longer love, or self, but beauty.”
Whereas Bentley, an atheist, believes in the redemptive power of art, her adored Balanchine identified the source of that power as God, not the artist, or in his case, the choreographer. “God creates; I assemble,” he would say. He called his dancers angels. They were messengers of beauty for whom he felt responsible.
Serenade is full of such “angels,” including the formidable Dark Angel, who furiously flaps her “wings” before covering the leading man’s eyes with her hand and steering him away from the heroine, with whom he just had a tender encounter. While this dramatic episode prompts more conjecture than any other in the ballet, Bentley assures us that it’s autobiographical: “[E]very role [Balanchine] ever created, male and female, solo and corps, was him.”
That said, she does her readers a disservice by ignoring the most troubling part of Balanchine’s biography, namely his sexual liaisons with young dancers—at least one of whom likely endured multiple abortions in the late 1930s that may have had lasting deleterious effects.
While Bentley registers deep disappointment in acknowledging that 19th-century choreographer Marius Petipa abused his wife, she overlooks similarly bad behavior by Petipa’s artistic heir. At the same time, she cavalierly discloses her own sexual exploits, tying her erotic awakening to an embarrassing mistake she made onstage during one Serenade performance.
Bentley is as confessional as Balanchine was elusive, but both were seekers after God. In her 2004 book, The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir, Bentley admits that her inability to find God fueled her restless promiscuity. Balanchine, on the other hand, embraced God in faith, despite or because of his sexual sins. His famed imperturbability emanated from a certitude about his choreographic gifts and from whence they came. How else would he have had the confidence to rearrange the music of Tchaikovsky to suit his own purposes, as he did with Serenade?
Balanchine’s affinity with the Russian composer is one of several topics Bentley explores to place Serenade in context. A classically trained pianist, Balanchine venerated music even more than dance. He was the rare choreographer to defer to conductors in matters of tempo: “We followed the music; the music did not follow us,” Bentley explained.
He understood the tremendous debt he owed Tchaikovsky, who as the composer of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker elevated the traditionally low standards of theatrical music. Tchaikovsky’s own “favorite child,” however, was his more modest Serenade in C for Strings, which he composed in 1880. Balanchine, too, loved this piece and always wanted to stage it. Since it required only a small string ensemble and Balanchine lacked access to a full orchestra in America in 1934, it seemed the opportune time.
Back then, he choreographed just three of the score’s four movements. When he added the fourth six years later, he reversed Tchaikovsky’s intended order by putting the melancholic Elegy last and moving the lively Allegro con spirito into third. Evidently, he didn’t think his revered countryman, by then resting in his Russian grave beneath a winged angel clutching a cross (the Dark Angel, perhaps?), would have minded.
Bentley is an excellent literary stylist, although she occasionally lapses into overwriting, such as when describing pointe work, that is, the dancing done while balancing on the tips of one’s toes in reinforced slippers: “An unlikely wager is won inside these satin cylinders, Newton’s apple upended, cored, and spun into a vertical liquid of unlikeliness.”
Nevertheless, she is an authoritative guide in all matters Serenade—to a point. In the ballet, the seventeen girls standing in diagonal rows with upraised arms shield themselves from the ethereal light, which is often described as lunar. Balanchine once called it “the light of God, too bright for human eyes.”
Could these girls be the seraphs—or angels—mentioned in Isaiah, who cover their faces with their wings before the high and exalted Lord? That allusion escapes Bentley. For all her insider knowledge, the sacred regions of Balanchine’s soul were beyond her reach.
As to Serenade’s meaning, perhaps it does depict the birth of a woman artist, or the “ascendance of a dancer,” as Bentley asserts. I like to think it references an ascension of another kind, that of the Israelites on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, who sang Songs of Ascents such as the one recorded in Psalm 121:5–7: “The Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—He will watch over your life.”
We’ll never know.
Sharon Skeel is the author of Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance (Oxford University Press, 2020).
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