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Beauty and the Beast
Raymonda Act III
'Still Life' at the Penguin Café
The Two Pigeons
The Dance House
Typically for Balanchine, Serenade is a non-narrative work, choreographed in direct response to the music. 'There are,' the choreographer explained in notes to the ballet, 'simply dancers in motion to a beautiful piece of music. The only story is the music's story, a serenade, a dance, if you like, in the light of the moon.' However he did admit that the music hinted at a plot. 'Though it was not composed for the ballet', he said, '[it] has different qualities suggestive of different emotions and human situations. Parts of the ballet seem to have a story. But… the score contains many stories – it is many things to many listeners to the music, and many things to many people who see the ballet.'
Balanchine was happy for the strands of story to remain vague, as he did not believe plot to be important. In notes on Serenade in his book Balanchine's Festival of Ballet, he explained: 'To tell a story about something is simply a very human way of saying that we understand it. Making a ballet is a choreographer's way of showing how he understands a piece of music, not in words, not in narrative form (unless he has in mind a particular story), but in dancing'.
Serenade was Balanchine's first ballet in the United States. One of the co-founders of the School of American Ballet in New York, he created the piece using classwork as a starting-point. The intention was to illustrate to his students how performing on the stage differed from traditional class work, which tends to focus more on practising individual techniques.
As the piece evolved during the classes that he taught, Balanchine embraced in his choreography many typical problems a teacher faces. Inconsistent class sizes, students arriving late, and in one instance a stumble by a young girl as she left the stage were all incorporated into the movement – see how many you can spot when you watch the ballet. One notable element is the absence of any male dancers for the first stages of the work – boys only attended Balanchine's classes as the term progressed.
The music, by Tchaikovsky, is scored for strings only (violins, violas, cellos and basses). It is in four parts: a steady opening movement, followed by a waltz, then an elegy (a lament for the dead or some melancholy event) and finally a 'Russian' theme, based on a barge-hauling song and a lively street song. When Balanchine first made Serenade, he used only the first three of these movements. In 1940 he made choreography to the remaining music, but added this to the ballet after the waltz, so the elegy remained the finale of the piece.
The choreography has undergone other changes. When first staged in front of an audience, the piece was revised to play to the strengths of the students performing. However those little moments inspired by spontaneous moments in class (late arrivals, stumbles, etc) were retained to try and draw attention to areas that might normally be overlooked. As it was initially intended as an exercise for an entire class, the leading role had been created to be danced by a number of people, rather than by one soloist. Balanchine later rearranged it for just one dancer. However, he was to split the role again for a New York City Ballet performance in London, so that UK audiences had an opportunity to see more of the company's dancers perform.
Since then the ballet has been staged world-wide by various dance companies, with many giving the piece a distinct flavour of their own – as the work's origins are in teaching, each different version reflects the schooling of the company that performs it.
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