Choreographed originally in 1934 for students at the recently founded School of American Ballet, Serenade is the very first work George Balanchine created for American dancers. The remarkable story of its composition has often been told. Deciding after class one day that “the best way to make students aware of stage technique was to give them something new to dance,” Balanchine began to choreograph a new work, to Tchaikovsky’s lush Serenade in C for string orchestra, improvising with whatever students were available—seventeen that first day, varying numbers on succeeding days, eventually a few men; and incorporating chance happenings, such as a dancer’s fall or late arrival, into the overall design of the piece. Making a virtue of his students’ technical limitations and lack of finesse, he also contrived to build simple movements into consequential stage events, to give unprecedented importance to the ensemble rather than to individuals, and to infuse the whole with a freshness and candor that have struck many viewers as the first expression of a distinctively American style.
Although Balanchine continued to revise Serenade for many years as he adapted it to the developing abilities of his dancers, the ballet has always retained the unique—even idiosyncratic—character that was determined by those early circumstances. Romantic in form and feeling, it also has always tantalized audiences with its hints of a mysterious narrative, though Balanchine consistently refused to define what that narrative might be. Instead, he insisted that because Tchaikovsky’s score “has in its danceable four movements different qualities suggestive of different emotions and human situations,” a “plot” seems to emerge that is “many things to many listeners to the music, and many things to many people who see the ballet.”
Long considered the “signature piece” of New York City Ballet, Serenade now belongs to the repertory of companies around the world. In PNB’s repertory since 1978, it was one of the first Balanchine ballets that Francia Russell staged for the young Company. Now decades old, Serenade still retains what dance writer Doris Hering once called “the dew of discovery…glistening upon it.” Not surprisingly, it is loved by audiences and dancers alike.
Notes by Jeanie Thomas, edited by Doug Fullington, 2009.