August 23rd, 2014

Serenades past and present

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.]

7 Responses to “Serenades past and present”

  1. Charles Says:

    Neo, let me just say that I have absolutely NO interest in the ballet (or opera for that matter); But, you continue to amaze me with your knowledge and love of such.

    Okay, I’m going to date my self with this observation. But, you’re kind of like Johnny Carson in that you comment on so many different topics and keep it interesting for those of us who don’t know “about such stuff.”

    Johnny Carson, unlike today’s talk shows which tend to cater to one specific demographic, used to have a variety of guests on his show – from the latest pop star to someone from “higher culture”. I still remember the time he had Beverly Sills as a guest (did I mention I have NO interest in opera?) and asked her to show how to “stab” someone in opera. (I cannot find a YouTube clip; but it was all done very dramatically and also by slight “sleight of hand,” oh so very cool.)

    In that sense Johnny Carson was so very “diverse” long before that became the buzz word that it is today.

    Your blog seems to do the same – so thank you!

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    While I do appreciate the beauty of the ballet, I can’t say that I’m a fan of it. I am a fan of classical music however and a similar situation exists with various conductors. One conductor’s interpretation can vary widely from another conductor’s performance. I have often heard a rendition that I personally found less than satisfying, despite being a fan of that particular piece of music. Tempo and emphasis are in the hands of the conductor for instance.

    Nor is it just classical music. Last night, while listening to the internet music service Pandora, I heard Tony Bennett’s cover of the song, “As Time Goes By”, one of my personal favorites from that genre and I was a bit disappointed in Bennett’s cover. As usual with Bennett (reportedly Sinatra’s favorite crooner) it was technically superb but IMO much too ‘upbeat’ and, to me eviscerated the lyric’s evocation of timelessness, that when all is said and done, the human condition remains unchanged in its basics.

    I suspect that just such a perception applies to the ballet as well and perhaps in every art.

  3. NeoConScum Says:

    W*O*W…! Breathtaking.

  4. Susan Says:

    I remember seeing the NYC Ballet do the Serenade for Strings ballet at Saratoga Springs (outdoors theatre) as a teenager over 40 years ago. I was attending Marina Svetlova’s dance school in Dorset, Vermont, and the school arranged a field trip there for us. In addition to the ballet, the memory of the music wafting around in the open air (it was a fairly windy day) struck me as utterly fantastic—as poetic as the ballet itself. By the way, Alexis Dolinoff–who was 72 at the time, and who had danced with Pavlova, taught a class there (with his pipe in his mouth!).

  5. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    For me, Neo, your ballet posts are like fascinating dispatches from a mysterious distant country, in a beautiful language I can only half-comprehend. They remind me of the only other connection I’ve ever had to the world of dance — a childhood fascination with the “Shoes” books of Noel Streatfeild, and especially “Ballet Shoes.” As a little girl growing up deep in the country, impossibly far from theaters, live ballet performances or dance classes, I wore out the library’s copies of all of the books, but most especially “Ballet Shoes” — read it over and over again, tried my awkward, untutored best to replicate the five positions and the simpler steps described in the book and — in those pre-You-Tube days — to imagine what “Swan Lake,” “Coppelia” and the other ballets described in the books must be like. The words on the page couldn’t transmit the music or the dancers’ images but nonetheless conveyed the ballets’ powerful beauty, just as your posts do today.

    Maybe you, too, knew the Shoes books? Typing this post has caused me to track down a library copy of “Ballet Shoes” to reread. A treat!

  6. Irene Says:

    Thanks for your memories, Neo. Wonderful post.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Mrs Whatsit:

    Of course, I knew and loved the books—and read them many times, both “Ballet Shoes” and “Theater Shoes.” But I was able to see so much real live ballet and theater I was very lucky.

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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