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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Serenade at Eighty

-- By Tom Phillips

Eighty years ago this week, a new art form was brought forth on this continent.   On June 10, 1934, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein’s fledgling School of American Ballet performed the first ballet choreographed on and for American dancers – Balanchine’s Serenade.  It was the beginning of a revolution, but not the kind that anyone expected.  
When Balanchine arrived in America in 1933, a refugee from imperial Russia, no one was clamoring for a new classical ballet with music by Tchaikovsky.  These were the depths of the Great Depression, the heyday of John Steinbeck in America, and Socialist Realism in Russia.  The arts were expected to reflect the social and political struggles of humanity.  Modern dance seemed much closer to the spirit of the time.  And the main figure in modern dance was Martha Graham, whose whole career had been a revolt against the ballet tradition.

Serenade starts with a tableau that could have been created by Graham.  Seventeen girls stand in blue light, their feet straight ahead.  One arm is raised, the hand flexed toward the vertical. Balanchine reportedly told them they were “blocking the moonlight.” The position is un-balletic, the expression anti-romantic; but suddenly it begins to transform.  The wrist curves and circles overhead, then diagonally across the center line of the body, followed by the gaze; the arms form a ballet position at the hips. Then, without warning or preparation, seventeen pairs of feet suddenly turn out from parallel to first position. The floor squeaks in protest. The movement is abrupt, almost violent -- not an impulse from within, but a discipline imposed from outside. Graham herself said the first time she saw it, tears sprang to her eyes. “It was simplicity itself,” she said, “but the simplicity of a very great master.”

Next the heads lift, the arms rise and spread out, and the torso lifts as the right foot points to the side.  The dancers breathe and expand, no longer blocking the moonlight, but open to the world in front of them.  The sequence could end here, but it doesn’t. Balanchine – who talked of “forcing” beauty out of human material — closes the feet, crossing the ankles to the fifth position. The arms again rise and spread, but this time the bodies reach beyond the vertical, looking to the sky. “Blocking the moonlight” has been transformed, step by step, into ballet, into an opening toward the heavens.  Balanchine’s young ballerinas have yet to move from their places, or even bend their knees, but they have already foreshadowed the drama to come: the transcendence of modernism by classicism.

The movement begins.  Serenade is a teaching ballet, a transition from the classroom to the stage, an introduction to dance performance as much for the dancers as the audience.   For each dancer it is an object lesson in finding and keeping your place, moving to the music, getting on and off.   They enter and exit in rapid succession, lines and patterns form and break, dancers move in unison and then in sequence, a few break out for mini-solos: a dash around the stage and back to place, a couple of pirouettes in the center.  Three more dancers enter for more substantial solos.  The opening tableau is repeated, but this time a man enters, to partner the first soloist in a waltz. 

The man’s entrance was determined not by some choreographic master plan, but by what was happening in class.  Balanchine said he choreographed with whoever was available.  Boys began to attend, and so they were worked into the pattern.  He used accidents as well.  One day one of the girls was late, and so she enters the tableau, sneaking in at the end of the opening section.   Another day, when all the girls were supposed to rush off the stage, one of them fell and started to cry.  This becomes a motif, and eventually the dramatic turning point of the ballet.  After the long opening section of pure dance, the action suddenly crashes to earth.  A girl comes undone, her hair cascades out of its pins.  She crumples to the floor as if shot.  Everyone else flees the stage. 

Enter a mystery, a mystic procession.  A man walks on, guided and at the same time blinded by a woman who walks behind him, her hand blocking his vision.  He breaks free, and bends to help the fallen girl.   She dances with him, vying for him with his mysterious consort, and a third woman who repeatedly rushes in.  The three fling themselves into his arms in rapid succession.  But the drama ends the way it began. The man must break away, and yield again to the woman’s arms and her direction. They exit as they entered.  The fallen girl sinks to the floor again.  She has been left to her fate.

But she's not been left alone. A new group of dancers enters, to perform a ritual of departure, or dedication, or death. It seems they have done this any number of times, maybe for all of eternity.  The girl is raised from the floor and wrapped in an embrace, long and warm, by a tall woman. Three strong men, moving as one, kneel, grasp her ankles and lift her straight up onto broad shoulders. As they bear her away, she raises and spreads her arms, then opens out beyond the vertical, face to the sky, the same movement that ended the prologue.

This was Balanchine’s answer to the despair of modernism.  Here, even death is communal, and redeemed by beauty.  It’s a Platonic postulate, dear to Balanchine’s heart, that the world we see is not the real world, that ideal forms lie beyond our experience, available to us only in shadowy form.  The discipline, the very unnaturalness of ballet is an attempt to go beyond human experience, to approach a vision of the truth.
Serenade’s Platonic, archetypal structure enables it to shine through even flawed performances, like moonlight through a dusty window.   My favorite performances of all time are the first I ever saw, by the Canadian National Ballet in 1962, and two by the School of American Ballet, in 2004 and just this spring, May 31, 2014.

On my way into Lincoln Center that night I saw an advertising poster for a ballet company with a quote from a critic: “Ballet, at this level, is a belief system.”  The sentence flashed back during Serenade, as a girl arched into a full arabesque, bounding across the floor.  Serenade is an initiation, for performers and audiences alike, into a great mystery.  For better or worse, this girl was becoming a believer, in an art form that goes beyond normal human experience.   SAB’s performance was full of little flaws, but they didn’t matter, they even added to the spell.  Here, in every sense, were human beings in the process of becoming angels, messengers of the divine.

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips
Photos by Costas, Alexander Iziliaev