A celebration of two dance anniversaries

Pennsylvania Ballet's 'Serenade'

4 minute read
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust Photo: Alexander Iziliaev
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

The Pennsylvania Ballet, in the midst of its 50th-anniversary season, presented “Serenade and Other Dances,” a quartet of works that honors the company’s past and heralds its future. Serenade (the only work named in the program’s title, a reflection of its stature) is also celebrating an anniversary, its 80th.

This company and this particular ballet are bound together by both a person, George Balanchine, and a place, Philadelphia. Balanchine came to the United States in late 1933 and started choreographing Serenade the following March. As rehearsals began, he asked his patron, Lincoln Kirstein, to pray for him. Kirstein was not a religious man, but Balanchine was, and Serenade is in many ways a spiritual ballet, though it has no story, scenery, or characters. It has, rather, steps and gestures that make manifest a sublime piece of music, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48.

Barbara Weisberger, who founded the Pennsylvania Ballet with Balanchine’s encouragement, watched him create Serenade. She was then an eight-year-old child crouched under a piano, the youngest student at his brand new School of American Ballet in New York City. He was rehearsing the older girls, some of whom had come from Philadelphia, where they had studied with Catherine and Dorothie Littlefield. Balanchine knew the Littlefield sisters, particularly Dorothie, through ballet circles in Paris, and, decades later, he confided to Weisberger, “You know, when I came to this country I didn’t know many people, but I did know Dorothie Littlefield.” In short order, he invited Littlefield and six of her most promising pupils to join him in Manhattan. He established a school first and then a company.

He later told someone that the Littlefield students had “good feet, but no speed,” and that was the impetus for Serenade. Indeed, one ballerina remembered, “We worked on it every day, and all I can recall now is running.” They learned how the steps they practiced in the studio could evolve into something beautiful onstage. Critic Edwin Denby deemed the ballet “a graduation exercise.”

Ah, but what an exercise! Serenade’s opening tableau features 17 ballerinas in diagonal rows, right arms high and outstretched to match the long, exquisite chords of the music. Slowly, they bend their elbows to shield their eyes from a mystical light.

Reaction to the rise of Hitler

Ruthanna Boris remembered the thrill she felt when Balanchine announced he was making a new ballet just for them, his first American dancers. They convened in Studio A, and, after some preliminaries, he began to talk: “In Germany there is awful man — terrible, awful man! He looks like me only he has moustache.” When the Germans see this man, Balanchine explained, “they do this,” and he abruptly thrust his arm forward in a high salute. “But, you see, I am not bad man, I do not wear moustache — maybe, for me, you do this,” and he redirected his arm to the right and relaxed it slightly. He demonstrated the rest of the sequence, as the students followed along, and then he proclaimed, “[W]e dance!”

Balanchine once called Serenade simply “a dance in the moonlight,” a ballet without a story, but it seems clear that on his mind that day in March 1934 were matters of good and evil, light and darkness, and the transforming power of art. Lying in bed that night, Boris mulled over what she had heard and seen: “I looked up at my bedroom ceiling and said ‘Whatever you are, wherever you may exist, you were with us in Studio A.'”

Serenade premiered outdoors, at Woodlands, the Greenburgh, New York estate owned by banker Felix Warburg, whose son, Edward, had cofounded the school with Kirstein and Balanchine. There had been some debate about how to present their new ensemble to the public. “Suddenly it was decided that what I wanted more than anything else for my upcoming birthday was a performance by this company of ballet dancers at the family place,” Edward Warburg quipped nearly a half-century later. “We put up a platform on the lawn which to this day has never recovered; there is still a brown spot in the grass.” Actually, what’s in the grass now is a commemorative plaque, and the grass itself — indeed much of the estate — was donated to the local school district long ago.

And Serenade is not exactly what it once was, either. Balanchine changed it over the years, and the Pennsylvania Ballet performs a subsequent version that nevertheless preserves its loveliness and its soul. In this anniversary production, the soloists are more distinctive, and Ian Hussey in particular danced with surety and brio.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah speaks of evil and judgment and redemption. He has a vision of heaven, where the glory of the Lord is so bright that the seraphs shield their faces with their wings. Serenade has hints of Paradise. Who really needs a story?

What, When, Where

The Pennsylvania Ballet: George Balanchine’s Serenade, plus Afternoon of a Faun by Jerome Robbins, Under the Sun Pas de Deux by Margo Sappington, and Petite Mort by Jiři Kylián. At the Merriam Theater, Philadelphia, February 6-9. 215-893-1999 or paballet.org.

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