For those unfamiliar with the wonders of ballet, don’t let your initiation be “Swan Lake,” “Giselle” or “The Nutcracker.”
Instead, immerse yourself in what critic Edwin Denby once accurately labeled “a completely beautiful ballet.” Yes, George Balanchine’s “Serenade.”
Northrop auditorium audiences haven’t seen this ballet since 1987 — far too long — but they’ll revel in its radiance on Wednesday evening, when Miami City Ballet rolls into town for a one-night stand.
An immigration story
Balanchine was hungry — literally — to leave his native Russia in 1924, and had been working in Europe for nearly a decade — most notably for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes — before coming to America in 1933. He was 29 years old.
“Serenade” grew out of an academic exercise. On Jan. 2, 1934, Balanchine and philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein opened their School of American Ballet in New York City, renting studios previously used by Isadora Duncan. The goal was to train enough dancers to launch a ballet company.
After several months of work, Balanchine wanted to get his fledgling students acclimated to the stage, and used a series of night classes to fashion what Denby would later describe as “a kind of graduation exercise.”
What developed was “Serenade,” and its debut on June 9 of that year turned out to be a pivotal moment in American dance history.
For starters, “Serenade” was a narrative-free ballet. Balanchine’s choreography takes its cues from the music — Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48 — rather than imposing a plot upon it.
“Many people think there is a concealed story in the ballet,” he wrote in his “Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets.” “There is not. There are, simply, dancers in motion to a beautiful piece of music. The only story is the music’s story, a serenade, a dance, if you like, in the light of the moon.”
‘A living geometry’
If wisps of a story seem to bubble up in “Serenade” — and Balanchine, famously tight-lipped, left such details to the imagination — it’s because he wove recognizable occurrences into the choreography.
The ballet’s first moments certainly reflect its classroom roots, with the dancers executing a sequence straight out of the Ballet 101 vocabulary: first position, tendu, fifth position and port de bras, as if to say, “Look what we’ve learned.”
What follows during the next half-hour is a master class on what was to become Balanchine’s style, a remarkable achievement given that it was the choreographer’s first ballet in America.
Seventeen dancers were initially on hand in the studio, so Balanchine arranged that unwieldy number into an unforgettable opening tableau of intersecting diagonals. In subsequent classes, a dancer fell, another arrived late, a few shielded their eyes from the sun with their hands; it all went in.
“That was his way,” writes Terry Teachout in “All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine.” “He told Ruthanna Boris, who danced in the premiere of ‘Serenade,’ ‘You have to look everywhere, everything, all the time. Your eyes is camera and your brain is file cabinet.’ ”
Balanchine constantly tinkered with his ballets, most especially “Serenade.” Six years after its original production, he added what is now the ballet’s third movement, set to the brisk finale in Tchaikovsky’s score.
Over the decades, steps were altered to suit the skills of particular dancers, and 10 principal female roles were distilled into three (on Wednesday, MCB principal dancer and Minnesota native Simone Messmer will be performing one of them).
Still, the ballet’s real star has always been the corps, sweeping in and out through breathless, ever-changing patterns (“a living geometry,” explained writer Toni Bentley), an exhilarating example of Balanchine’s pedal-to-the-metal style.
The Everywomen of the “Serenade” corps also constitute what turned out to be the first in a long line of Balanchine-born sisterhoods. No wonder he once confided to a dancer that “Serenade” could have been titled “Ballerina.”
“ ‘Serenade’ is an assertion about the theoretical equality of all dancers,” observed Marcia B. Siegel, one of several generations of critics to dissect the ballet over the years. “It’s about the right each of them has to belong — to fit in and stand out.”
A memorable alteration came in 1952, as Balanchine was getting his New York City Ballet off the ground. He turned to his frequent costumer, Barbara Karinska, to give the ballet a new look. Her solution: tightfitting sleeveless bodices and ankle-length skirts (each fashioned from 20 yards of ethereal tulle), in pale shades of her signature blue. It’s impossible to picture “Serenade” without them.
Eighty-two years young and brimming with vitality, “Serenade” feels as if it debuted yesterday. It’s so richly textured that it continually reveals previously unseen wonders.
No surprise that even now, 33 years after his death, it’s Balanchine’s most widely performed work.
Here’s one measurement of its inherent ability to enchant: “Serenade” invariably elicits applause even before the dancing begins.
As Tchaikovsky’s spine-tingling opening chords soar out of the orchestra pit, the curtain rises to reveal those 17 women, bathed in shimmering moonlight. They’re standing, motionless, in a grid pattern that was Balanchine’s affectionate nod to California orange groves. Or so goes the “Serenade” mythology.
“Perhaps all that remains to be said is that it has always been a favorite among dancers,” writes Nancy Reynolds in her definitive 1977 book, “Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet.” “In contrast, perhaps, to some of Balanchine’s more technically difficult ballets, in which the performer may feel inadequate, ‘Serenade’ makes dancers feel beautiful.”
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757 • @RickNelsonStrib
Miami City Ballet
What: George Balanchine’s “Serenade” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” and Justin Peck’s “Heatscape.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed., April 27.
Where: Northrop Auditorium, 84 SE. Church St., University of Minnesota, Mpls.
Tickets: $54-$74. 612-624-2345 or northrop.umn.edu