Moonlight 'Serenade' Master George Balanchine blended years of experience with pure happenstance to create a celebration of learning and movement.

November 19, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As ballet lore has it, George Balanchine clapped his hands for attention at the end of class one day in 1934. "Mmmm," he said to his students. "I think we'll start something."

That "something" was the ballet called "Serenade." As the title suggests, it's a nocturne, a song to the night, hushed and ephemeral as moonlight. It is also a masterpiece.

"Serenade" was the first ballet the Russian-born Balanchine made in America and also the first major abstract ballet in dance history. Intended as a teaching piece, it is today in the repertory of every major ballet company in the world. It's the signature work of New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine founded in 1948 and directed until his death in 1983.

Friday and Saturday, it will be performed by students at Goucher College in a rare non-professional production of the work. It marks a homecoming of sorts, for a Goucher dancer was responsible for one of "Serenade's" most enduring images.

Set to Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings," "Serenade" is a variant of the so-called "white" ballet -- "Les Sylphides" and the second acts of "Swan Lake" and "Giselle" are its antecedents -- in which plot is subordinate to pure movement.

"What he proceeded to create was a ballet of patterns, a ballet of constant movement, a ballet to train an ensemble," wrote Nancy Reynolds, archivist of the New York City Ballet. "Every dancer did something a little different; there was no posing around watching a few soloists perform; everyone was a full participant."

In "Serenade," the dancers are not disguised as the winged and weightless sprites so beloved of 19th-century choreographers. The 20 women of "Serenade" are human and real.

"Serenade" is not white, either. The dancers wear full-length tulle skirts of pale blue, under ice-blue lighting that turns the stage into a moonlit landscape. And unlike the white ballets, which are slow-moving, formal and symmetrical, "Serenade" moves like the wind, in fluid, continuously changing patterns. Its serenity is deceptive.

John Clifford, the former New York City Ballet dancer who taught "Serenade" to the students at Goucher, calls it "the danger ballet."

Rarely does the Balanchine Trust, which controls the artistic estate of the late choreographer, allow the work to be danced by non-professionals, so the performance is a coup for Goucher as well as a challenge to its students.

"The benefit is immense," says dance faculty member Laura Gurdus Dolid, who is in charge of the project. "There is so much dancing in this piece. They learn to go beyond themselves, and they all become better dancers."

Despite the difficulty of its complex patterns and speed of execution, "Serenade" was created for dancers exactly like the ones who will be dancing it at Goucher.

When Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy arts patron, asked Balanchine in 1933 to form an American ballet company, the 29-year-old Russian choreographer said, famously: "But first, a school!"

To his new School of American Ballet came a corps of women and a few men brave enough to put on tights. They were not newcomers to dance. Many had trained at schools run by expatriate Russian dancers who had fled the Bolshevik revolution; others had studied interpretive dance, as modern dance was then called, in the physical education departments of American colleges.

But Balanchine's school was the training ground for a professional company modeled on the Ballets Russes, the company of Nijinsky and Serge Diaghilev, the company that premiered "The Firebird" and "The Rite of Spring," the company that turned ballet into a hot ticket in the first decades of the 20th century.

So he was eager to turn his young Americans from dance students into dancers. And after teaching them for two months, he decided it was time for more than the five positions of the feet.

The making of "Serenade" has become the stuff of legend.

As the curtain rises, for instance, we see 17 women, arms upraised in a salute to an offstage moon. Seventeen is an odd number in its own right, but even odder in ballet, where the corps is almost always divisible by four.

On the day that Balanchine decided to "start something," 17 young women showed up for class. So he arranged them in a diagonal pattern -- one, two, three, five, three, two, one. He cloaked the awkward number in symmetry.

The next day, when nine women showed up, he choreographed for nine dancers. On other days, there might be 16, or seven, or 12. So the number of dancers in the piece constantly changes.

At one rehearsal of "Serenade," someone arrived late; at another, someone tiptoed out to get her pointe shoes. Balanchine was amused, apparently, by these little human events, for he incorporated them into the piece, where a dancer leaves right after the salute to the moon and, later, another slips in when the audience's eyes are elsewhere.

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