Premiering on June 9, 1934, on the rainy grounds of philanthropist Felix M. Warburg’s estate in upstate NY, Serenade was the first major ballet Balanchine created in America, and represented an indisputable watershed moment both in his career and in the history of the Company to come. He set this foundational ballet to a beloved, classical Tschaikovsky score, the Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra, and choreographed it on the students of the then-brand new School of American Ballet. This intermingling of the traditional stylings and music of his Russian background with movement created for the burgeoning school of what would eventually become the New York City Ballet as we know it today served in many ways as an announcement of Balanchine and Co-Founder Lincoln Kirstein’s vision for a uniquely American ballet, and has continued to represent a rupture in the history of the art form in its western incarnation.
This season, NYCB is making history again. To describe the recent past and its effects on NYCB as unprecedented is to state the obvious; never in its more than seven decade-history has the Company faced this lengthy an absence from its shared rehearsal studios, its home stage, and the general operations and daily creative output that make up the lifeblood of any dance company. The opening night performance of the upcoming 21-22 Season, then, also marks a watershed moment in NYCB’s history—a return to as much normality as is currently possible within a world that has irrevocably changed, and a declaration of shared perseverance that in many ways echoes the statement made by that first performance of Serenade. As such, it’s more than fitting that this treasured ballet will be performed on the opening night program.
In celebration of this metaphorical meeting of history-making performances, we spoke with Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan, Repertory Director Christine Redpath, and several of the current Company members who’ve performed Serenade, and have put their reflections and memories in conversation with the words of the work’s progenitor for a timeless look at what one ballet can mean to many.
GEORGE BALANCHINE: Soon after my arrival in America, Lincoln Kirstein, Edward M. M. Warburg, and I opened the School of American Ballet in New York. As part of the school curriculum, I started an evening ballet class in stage technique, to give students some idea of how dancing on stage differs from classwork. Serenade evolved from the lessons I gave.
WENDY WHELAN: I always think of Serenade as the beginning. It was the start of something altogether new, and that purity still exudes from the ballet nearly 90 years later. It also happens to be, for many of us, our first experience of dancing Balanchine, since [former Principal Dancer and current SAB Faculty Member] Suki Schorer regularly stages it on the advanced dancers at the School of American Ballet, so it’s very much the base from which we grow.
TILER PECK: Serenade has a special meaning to me because it was my workshop performance ballet at SAB, so one could say that it helped me get into NYCB. I vividly remember all of my rehearsals with Suki Schorer at the School in preparation for the workshop performance, and I still hear her in my head whenever I dance it. I was the principal “Russian Girl” then, and that is the same role I still dance in the Company today!
CHRISTINE REDPATH: I was three or four years old when my parents took me to The Nutcracker in Chicago. Evidently I sat on the coats to see, transfixed, and announced that I wanted to be a dancer. Soon after I was given ballet classes in a low building built around a big tree. There was a record player and a blackboard In the small studio. On the blackboard, the teacher wrote the names of some of the ballet steps in French. She would put the needle on the record, and we would dance/move to it. When I joined NYCB, I was soon called to rehearse a ballet called Serenade, and went to the back of the room with the other girls learning it, and the pianist began to play the music. It felt very familiar to me, and after a while it clicked: my teacher had played it for us in that little studio all those years ago.
ALEXA MAXWELL: The most spectacular memory I have of performing Serenade is when I danced the ballet at NYCB for the first time. To say Serenade was a dream to dance would be a massive understatement, and when I got into the ballet, I felt so honored. The moment that the curtain went up, I felt the cold rush of the audience hit my right hand, stretched out in that iconic pose, reaching out to what seemed like the "ballet heavens." With that gorgeous Tschaikovsky music playing, I found myself welling up with tears. It was one of the most blissful and grateful emotions I have ever felt onstage. I wish I could bottle up that feeling and keep it inside of me forever.
MARY ELIZABETH SELL: For me Serenade represents a journey—within the ballet itself each and every performance, as well as the journey of my career with NYCB. I'm deeply grateful for the privilege of growing into this special ballet throughout my career, and I'm really looking forward to how it will feel when we meet again on opening night this fall.
LAUREN COLLETT: It's been a favorite of mine since I first learned who Balanchine was. Opening night will be my first time getting to perform Serenade and I’m overjoyed that it is my first show back!
NIEVE CORRIGAN: Serenade is a rite of passage at NYCB. It’s a classic. The music. The costumes. The drama. It has it all while remaining simple. This will be my first time performing Serenade and I know it’s going to be a very emotional performance to come back to the stage with.
BALANCHINE: The Orchestra plays the strong and spacious opening chords of the brief Andante section and repeats them deeply before the curtain rises. When we see the stage, a group of girls stand in a tableau of crossing lines. It is night.
GABRIELLA DOMINI: I’m anticipating the very first moments of the performance when the NYCB Orchestra swells back to life. It’s a vision I’ve held on to throughout these many months away from the Theater and has been a source of inspiration to keep pushing on through times when we didn’t know how far away that moment would be. As we near the season, I can’t help but think of how powerful it will be to hear the familiar notes of Tschaikovsky begin to play.
ALEC KNIGHT: I enjoy being backstage before the ballet begins, watching the ballerinas go over steps, talk with one another, laugh, and eventually take their opening places as the overture begins. It truly is one of the coolest moments to witness.
CHRISTINE REDPATH: I remember the wonder and thrill of being in the front stage right when I first danced it, hearing the muted overture, and being near the stage manager’s desk offstage, hearing the stage manager call, “Stand by, curtain going up,” and on that cue the curtain goes up and a draft of air from the audience hits you, and often the audiences gasps and sometimes applaud a bit at the simple beauty of the rows of blue tulle women with right arms stretched out to the light. Magic. And the beginning, like the ritual of daily class—simple port de bras, turn the feet out, breathe, look down to your hands in first, then lift them, offering what you have to give that day, and off you go in that glorious swirl of music and Mr. B.’s divine choreography.
We were on tour in 1972 in Tbilisi, where Balanchine was from. We were doing the last performance of our time there. It was a Sunday matinee, and as the Overture was playing we could hear what sounded like a riot—loud angry voices, banging on wood, shushing, arguing, loud voices. Just before the curtain went up, there were loud wood cracking sounds, and a lot of crowd movement. The curtain went up. After we moved our right hands to our foreheads, we could see that people were running down the two aisles, shoving and elbowing each other, and others shushing them. They ran in as far as each of them could, and quickly sat down filling the aisles all the way to the open, broken doors at the back, letting light in. From then on they were totally silent throughout the ballet, until the end, when the house exploded in clapping and rhythmic stamping in appreciation. We found out later that tickets had been sold for another performance of it in the evening that was not scheduled, and the irate ticket holders stormed the matinee to see it.
BALANCHINE: One girl comes in late. She finds her place in the group and stands with the other girls. A boy enters at the back of the stage. As he walks forward toward the girl, her friends leave the stage. A waltz begins as the boy reaches the girl.
CHUN WAI CHAN: I love doing the “Waltz Boy” role. The steps are simple but the way it’s choreographed with the music is interesting and challenging. One night, I had injuries in both knees from another ballet, and I had to do the dress rehearsal knowing I didn’t have an understudy for some reason. With a huge body ache and headache, I made it onstage. Once the music started I felt I was not the one doing the steps, the music was the one doing the steps for me. It was such a magical experience. It feels like the time and the universe stop when this ballet is being performed.
ISABELLA LAFRENIERE: The first time I learned Serenade, I had the privilege of learning the “Waltz Girl” from [former Principal Dancer] Patricia McBride. It was particularly special to learn about her personal experiences with the ballet.
WENDY WHELAN: I never was part of the ballet as a Company member (I only ever performed the corps at SAB, but not at NYCB). But once, as a senior principal dancer, I arrived at the Theater to begin my work day, when suddenly I was handed a video of Serenade and told, “Learn this—you will be doing the ‘Waltz Girl’ in tonight’s show…” I hadn’t even been an understudy, so clearly every ballerina that danced it was out. It was a wonderful challenge to dive into the ballet for the day. I studied and practiced it all day long and late in the afternoon was given an abbreviated complete rehearsal to fit myself into the entrances and practice my pathway in and around all the other dancers. I remember being concerned that I would not see the faces of the different dancers to know my crossings, for all that blue tulle was sure to become a series of tidal waves to my novice eyes. It was a thrill to “swim in the waters of Serenade” with all my amazing colleagues.
BALANCHINE: Five girls remain onstage. They sit together on the stage as the music is quiet, turning toward each other in gentle movements. They rise and, at the first sound of the brilliant Russian melody, respond immediately and dance with open gaiety.
TILER PECK: I love the beginning of the "Russian dance" when we offer our hands to one another. It feels like a true sisterhood.
MARY ELIZABETH SELL: I love dancing the "Russian section," as we call it, because of the way it builds from a quiet, intimate, and almost reverent beginning with only five dancers, to very fast and exciting movements that continue to grow as more of the dancers enter the stage, until we all burst with total abandon in the music. It's a feeling that can really only be expressed by the unison of the movement and music.
BALANCHINE: ...as the music finishes, we see that the girl has fallen to the floor, her head buried in her arms. She is alone. Another girl brings a boy to her. …it is as if she moved him, as if he saw only what she wished.
MEGAN LECRONE: I danced in the corps a lot, and I've been performing the “Dark Angel” for at least four years now. But when you're in the corps and you're doing tons of ballets and you're exhausted and you have these days where you’re just like, “I don't think I can do another ballet,” I always felt like with Serenade, no matter how tired I was in the corps, how injured I was, it never felt like something that was overwhelming to do. It was a sigh of relief, a fresh breath.
SARA ADAMS: It's one of my favorite ballets, and just seeing the final pose with the “Waltz Girl” up on the men's shoulders, leaning back—it's kind of like a spiritual moment. It's very emotional, even though there's no story.
BALANCHINE: To tell a story about something is simply a very human way of saying that we understand it.
MEGAN LECRONE: I think that everybody had to go through not just physical but mental and emotional challenges, and largely on their own. It just gave me perspective on what's possible, in terms of my determination and self-preservation. And I think everybody has that in them now after experiencing this; it will really affect the Company as a whole, and how they're dancing, and how these performances are going to go. So I'm excited to see what happens on the stage and the energy that people will have.
CHUN WAI CHAN: After 18 months away from the Theater, I learned we must treat each show like our last show and not take any opportunities to perform for granted.
GABRIELLA DOMINI: Throughout all this fear and uncertainty, having the simple constant of a daily ballet class—even if over Zoom, even if in the absence of the energy that a typical Company class is usually overflowing with, and even if lacking the space to move with the sense of freedom that we’re used to onstage—was so comforting to me. That time allowed me a moment to step away from the troubles of the world and into a lighter space. I hope that in having the opportunity for NYCB to once again share our art form with New York, audience members may be imbued with this sense of comfort as well.
OLIVIA BOISSON: After every major injury I have had over the course of my career, it just so happened that the first ballet I got to dance after recovering was Serenade, so for that reason it holds a very special place in my heart.
JACQUELINE ATTRIDE: It's been lonely, not seeing the dancers scurrying around to rehearsals and trying on costumes. Serenade is a wonderful ballet to open with and I'm sure tears will come to a lot of eyes this opening night—I know they will to mine.
BALANCHINE: There are, 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.
JACQUELINE ATTRIDE: Serenade reminds me of the reason why I love being a part of this great Company. I feel happy watching the dancers display such great artistry. I also see how it makes the dancers feel just to be in this great ballet. Serenade feels fresh every time and sends a feeling to the audience that "We are still here and will never fade away."
SARA ADAMS: It feels amazing to be back rehearsing and dancing in a large space with other people, having inspiration all around. I cannot wait to be back on that stage, it'll feel like being back home, which is what we are very much looking forward to.
GABRIELLA DOMINI: Part of what makes life as a dancer with NYCB so fulfilling is that you’re surrounded by people who all share a common passion and sense of purpose. There’s also something to be said about being surrounded by wonderful live music all day, every day—it’s so uplifting.
LAINE HABONY: I won't lie, [the first performances back are] going to be hard, but ultimately I am beyond excited to be back on our stage at the David H Koch Theater. Just being able to bring the arts back after over a year is so thrilling, and such a blessing!