It’s Balanchine’s most ubiquitous ballet, performed by companies and schools around the world. Its diagonal lines of women in flowing Romantic tutus, the cool blue of reflected moonlight, are instantly recognisable to ballet fans around the world. But how much do you know about its often surprising history?
IT WAS MADE TO TEACH STUDENTS HOW TO DANCE
Balanchine, newly arrived in New York to establish a company, realised that first he would need a school – almost no one in the US danced ballet. He gathered together what dancers he could and began to train them. As well as classes on technique he gave evening classes on stagecraft, and Serenade grew out of that.
IT WAS A BIRTHDAY GIFT
Serenade had its first performance in 1934 - because Lincoln Kirstein, who founded the School of American Ballet with Balanchine and a Harvard friend called Eddie Warburg, convinced Eddie to ask his wealthy parents to host an evening of ballet at their estate as his birthday present.
ITS FIRST PERFORMANCE WAS RAINED OUT
The dancers appeared on the open-air stage. They lifted their hands in the opening tableaux, as if summoning something. And as if on cue, it began to pour. The performance was swiftly called off, and rescheduled for the next night. It was still raining lightly, but the dancers and the pianist didn’t seem to mind.
IT MADE MARTHA GRAHAM CRY
When Graham, the legendary modern-dance choreographer, saw the opening moments of Serenade, she was moved to tears. “It was simplicity itself,” she remembered, “but the simplicity of a very great master – one whom, we know, will later on be just as intricate as he pleases.”
IT WAS ONCE DANCED IN HATS
The first costumes for Serenade were simple white tunics. It was recostumed three times more after that: one of the designs had the dancers in hats! It was not until 1952 that Balanchine settled on the Karinska design with its long pale-blue tutus, which have become emblematic of the ballet.
IT WAS PANNED BY THE CRITICS
Budding choreographers, take heart: an early review by the influential critic John Martin called Serenade a "serviceable rather than an inspired piece of work" that "lacked spontaneity to a great extent."
IT MAKES USE OF CHANCE
As Balanchine choreographed Serenade, he wove random events into its fabric. In the first tableau, there are 17 dancers, because that was how many turned up for his class that evening. When one girl arrived late and hurried to take her place, he incorporated that; when another fell over in an exit, he incorporated that too.
IT ORIGINALLY STARTED WITH A CONTROVERSIAL POSE
The opening with its lines of women, each holding up one arm, rang alarm bells for Eddie Warburg. Balanchine had choreographed the arms stiffly outstretched, and Warburg thought that they resembled Heil Hitler salutes. Balanchine changed them to the current pose, which Kirstein described as "a more curvilinear, tentative, and vague fanfare of indeterminate gesture."
IT CHANGED AND EVOLVED
Balanchine was prone to discarding his ballets, but he returned to Serenade many times. When he had the chance to work with better dancers, he added more difficult steps and solos. He added extra choreography in order to use Tchaikovsky's full score. When he took his dancers to Europe, he added extra soloist roles to show off his principal dancers.
See Serenade as part of our New York Dialects program, showing in Sydney and Melbourne in 2021.