A while back I went to the Boston Ballet to see Balanchine’s “Serenade.”
Oh, there were other ballets on the program, but I shelled out the money for one reason and one reason alone: Serenade. I’ve written briefly about the ballet before, and it’s one of my absolute favorites—a dreamy pale blue world of unexpected formations and of drifting, floating beauty set to Tchaikovsky’s incomparable “Serenade for Strings.”
Balanchine choreographed the work in 1935 as his first all-American effort. But it’s not dated at all; it’s timeless. His dancers weren’t seasoned professionals, since this was only the beginning of the heyday of American ballet, which he did so much to shape.
But his genius was to make the most of what he had. Different numbers of dancers arriving for rehearsal on different days? Then use the number that arrived and make of it a serendipity, placing them in interesting patterns that defy expectations in a harmonious way. A girl slips and falls during rehearsal? Use it. Another arrives late? Incorporate that, too.
Boston’s effort was lovely and respectful. The dancers are strong and have great technique. But, but, but—I was vaguely troubled the entire time by the ghost of “Serenades” past.
The music was live—great, wonderful! But the first thing I noticed was that it seemed a bit understated, perfunctory, not quite as moving as I recall. The opening tableau, which is famous…
…practically brought tears to my eyes, as usual.
But as soon as the movement started, something felt a little bit wrong. I’m not sure what it was, but probably a combination of factors, complicated in my case by all those memories of masterpiece rattling around. The costumes—not quite full enough in the skirt, and not quite as gossamer. The dancers? They should move almost as though in a trance, and these women seemed too grounded and/or too happy.
There aren’t many videos of “Serenade” on YouTube, considering how famous it is (I believe the protective copyright rules for Balanchine may be particularly restrictive), and what is there isn’t of the company that used to do it the very best, the New York City Ballet. But I did find a few. This first one is short but shows that transcendental opening tableau, which is difficult to photograph because in order to get the whole view the camera has to be far away—but when it is, some of the details are sacrificed and miniaturized, such as the wonderful moment when the dancers’ feet open suddenly into first position (see minute 0:51 here). The video keeps moving back and forth from distant to closeup, which is one solution I suppose but I’d rather it kept to a view of the entire stage:
And here is a good video, consisting of short excerpts from the production of Portugal’s national ballet. The whole thing is well worth watching (it’s only a bit over three minutes long), and is distinguished by offering a short (but unfortunately somewhat truncated) portion of that glorious moment at the end of the first movement when the dancers reassemble into their opening pose and the dancer who is “late” wanders in and takes her place (the sequence begins around 0:45). At 1:42 you’ll see the special effect I described towards the end of this post, and the end of the video features the closing moments of the ballet:
That said, I will go to see Serenade any time, any place it’s performed—because it’s one of the greatest ballets ever made. The first time I saw it I could not believe there could be anything that beautiful, and I still feel the same all these long years after.
[NOTE: It's interesting to read the comments at YouTube for the first video in my post. Several of them are very similar to what I have to say about it. One is this:
The commenter...griping about the filming of the moment when the feet turn out is correct. It is also distracting that the camera moves in and pans ...altogether is a poor filming of two of the most majestic minutes in the history of classical ballet.
Indeed. And also this:
Seeing this ballet always makes me weep. Every time.
It's not a sad weeping, nor a happy one. It has something to do with beauty, and with this:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.
Something we all need these days.]