A serenade is a love song typically performed at night by a man standing beneath his lover’s window. Serenade is also the name of the first ballet that 30-year-old George Balanchine created after his emigration to America in 1934. This seemingly plotless, 32-minute-and-49-second work revolutionized the art form. An early signpost of women’s liberation, it overturned centuries-old, unwritten rules about women’s role in ballet — and the world.
No longer did ballerinas have to portray just princesses, ghosts or peasants. Balanchine freed them to be themselves — women — onstage.
“We possess, finally, ourselves,” writes author Toni Bentley, who danced for Balanchine, the legendary choreographer of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), for 10 years in the 1970s and ’80s. “He pared down our entire, complex, gorgeous history — to its most essential essence: femininity distilled, two-hundred proof.”
Bentley’s latest book, Serenade: A Balanchine Story, is her love song to Balanchine’s genius and the man himself. “There was, I think, not one of us who did not have a full-blown romance — conscious or not — with this man, the kind only young girls can have: unconsummated, consuming, life-changing, and one-sided.” When she visited the master at his hospital deathbed in 1983, he reached for her hand, wrist, forearm and shoulders the way a choreographer would when adjusting a dancer’s posture. “Never has anyone touched me with such gentle deliberation,” she recalls.
I confess to being a balletomane, to the point of having studied, if briefly, ballet and modern dance as an adult, though I remain baffled by the onstage spinnings and leapings. Ballet’s athleticism, beauty and grace, meshed with stirring scores and fabulous costumes, move me in a way that the twirlings of running backs and boundings of power forwards never will.
Bentley, who retired from the NYCB in her 20s when she developed arthritis in her hip, appeared in Serenade 50 times. Her book does something remarkable. With her insider’s knowledge, she dissects this ballet often on a second-by-second basis, scrutinizing its fleeting tendus, arabesques and bourrées.
She analyzes the meaning of movement in this most evanescent of all the arts just as a baseball writer might linger over every diving catch and head-first steal, so readers hear the crack of the bat, feel the rosin, taste the sweat and smell the fresh-mown grass.
Bentley writes as she danced. In every word, the reader feels her passion. “I can no more remove myself to a dispassionate consideration than I can remove the muscles in my body that he trained or the skin that enfolds them,” she says. “Serenade is how a woman’s blood rushes. Balanchine listened so closely.”
Consider this passage: “Here are the jazzy hips; the fleet of Amazon women; the protean nymphs; the unattainable beloved; the mad running, running, running; the lavish sways; the off-balance turns; the dangerous leaps into destiny; the falls of rebirth; the transient romance; the less transient tragedy; and the terrible solitude of it all.”
She learned well from her master teacher: She holds nothing back. In rehearsals Balanchine would gently admonish dancers he thought were saving something for the spotlight. “What are you waiting for? Tonight? Tomorrow? Tonight and tomorrow don’t exist. Only now, now!” he would chide. Believing only in “a continuous present,” Balanchine told his flock, “There is no future; it is the present forever.”
The chapters of this unusually structured book alternate Bentley’s first-person analysis of Serenade with master-class minihistories of the ballet world. We learn that Balanchine, born in 1904 in St. Petersburg, Russia, of Georgian descent, danced as a child in the Imperial Ballet School. During the Revolution he nearly starved. Pleurisy and tuberculosis scarred his lungs and permanently weakened him.
Balanchine married four times, each time to a ballerina. He also had a “spiritual union” with Tchaikovsky — a fellow St. Petersburger who died 10 years before the choreographer was born — that lasted 50 years, according to Bentley. In 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote Serenade for Strings in C, a work of “tenderness punctuated by sorrow,” which served Balanchine as his famous ballet’s score
Along the way Bentley explains ballet arcana, such as the pointe shoe. “A delicate dagger of defiance,” she calls it. “Slim and round like a Pillsbury biscuit canister before you pop it open to unfurl the dough” it allows legs to jut “like rapiers to the ground.” She explains the importance of turnout, the external rotation of a dancer’s foot. Serenade opens with 17 female dancers in long, blue, layered tulle skirts, their “legs like vertical pale sea anemones beneath.” Arrayed in two diamonds, the dancers’ feet oddly together and parallel, they stand nearly still onstage for the dance’s first 93 seconds.
Then: “Boom.” The women simultaneously split into turnout. “When our toes rip apart, heels locked, turnout is instantly asserted, and each dancer connects to herself like a plug to a socket, her spine the motherboard, head to toes, mind to soles, moral to amoral, and she is born alive.” So important is turnout that Bentley remembers how as a child she slept with her feet together and knees bent apart, “like a little frog to be even more turned out in the morning.”
She variously describes the women in Serenade as “a garden of girls” . . . “a battalion of female cadets” . . . “eight-armed Shivas” . . . “half-moon comets” . . . “ghosts” . . . “origami” and “a labyrinth that Balanchine has constructed to guide us, gently but with no recourse but to proceed. To where? To our lives? To love? To beauty? To joy?”
The dance opens with the women standing with their right arms diagonally risen, palms up and facing away, as if blocking light. Bentley sifts theories about their pose. Perhaps they mimic the Statue of Liberty. After all, Balanchine’s ship had passed it months before he began the project. Perhaps they ape the Nazi salute, which he had also seen. “Did Balanchine, in fact, intend to appropriate Hitler’s choreography of fascism and hate and reshape it, convert it, into one of beauty and freedom?” she asks.
Perhaps, as Balanchine’s NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirsten suggested, they are “facing some intolerable lunar light.” Balanchine always insisted his ballets had no meaning, yet he said they stand in “the light of God, too bright for human eyes.” As for the dancers, they called the pose “the aspirin dance” because it made them look like they had headaches.
At the ballet’s climax, Balanchine recreates Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, a marble by sculptor Antonio Canova. This, too, Balanchine had seen before leaving Europe. According to myth, the human girl Psyche became a goddess thanks to Cupid, the god of desire who defied his mother Venus, the goddess of love, by falling in love with Psyche. When they married, Psyche became immortal. From this union of Soul and Eros came their offspring, Pleasure.
At the ballet’s climax, a dancer representing Psyche is held aloft like another statue, the ancient Winged Victory of Samothrace, its arms and head thrown back and facing the light. “We began the ballet shielding ourselves from the light and end by going into that light, becoming light. The journey of the dancer. The story of woman. All women, any woman,” writes Bentley.
No longer motivated by such classical ballet tropes as madness or revenge, Bentley, in Serenade the book, lives for her art and strives for purity and perfection — as should we all.
George Spencer is a freelance writer who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.