Balanchine’s Inaugurates American Ballet

George Balanchine’s Serenade presaged a new era for ballet in the United States.

Summary of Event

Born Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, Russia, George Balanchine was enrolled in the Imperial Ballet School in that city at age ten and danced in productions at the Mariinsky Theatre. After becoming known for his experimental choreography, he formed a small troupe of dancers to tour Germany in 1924, with the full intention of never returning to the revolutionary turmoil in Soviet Russia. He joined Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Ballets Russes the next year and remained the company’s chief choreographer until the company disbanded after Diaghilev’s death four years later. For the next three years, Balanchine worked in London, Paris, Monte Carlo, and Copenhagen for various theaters, but the insecurity of this peripatetic life did not appeal to him. When Lincoln Kirstein appeared on the scene in 1933 and offered him the directorship of a company that was yet to come into existence, Balanchine took a gamble and moved to the United States, a country that had fascinated him for much of his life. This decision was to change the shape of American ballet. [kw]Balanchine’s Serenade Inaugurates American Ballet (Dec. 6, 1934)[Balanchines Serenade Inaugurates American Ballet (Dec. 6, 1934)]
[kw]Serenade Inaugurates American Ballet, Balanchine’s (Dec. 6, 1934)
[kw]American Ballet, Balanchine’s Serenade Inaugurates (Dec. 6, 1934)
[kw]Ballet, Balanchine’s Serenade Inaugurates American (Dec. 6, 1934)
Serenade (ballet)
[g]United States;Dec. 6, 1934: Balanchine’s Serenade Inaugurates American Ballet[08770]
[c]Dance;Dec. 6, 1934: Balanchine’s Serenade Inaugurates American Ballet[08770]
Balanchine, George
Kirstein, Lincoln
Warburg, Edward

Balanchine was not the first Russian dancer to seek his fortune in the United States. Anna Pavlova had toured the country from coast to coast beginning in 1910, and several of her partners had settled in the United States to teach. Vaslav Nijinsky led Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for a series of American appearances in 1916. Other of Diaghilev’s chief choreographers and dancers, most notably Michel Fokine and Adolf Bolm, had come to the United States to teach and perform. By the time Balanchine arrived on October 17, 1933, well-established pockets existed across the country where young dancers could receive adequate training in ballet. Balanchine, however, recognized the need for an academy with unified standards where talented dancers could be molded to suit his stylistic needs. The first auditions for the School of American Ballet School of American Ballet
American Ballet
Ballet companies;American Ballet were held on January 1, 1934, and a first performance was scheduled for June of that year.

Balanchine chose as music for the ballet a piece that he had loved ever since he was a child, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for String Orchestra (1880). The composer was one with whom Balanchine felt a close spiritual affiliation all his life. More practical considerations were involved as well; for example, the piece required only a small orchestra, which was all the company could afford. For the premiere, Balanchine utilized the first three movements of the Tchaikovsky work; in 1940, he added the final section (which he interposed before the third movement).

Working in a style that anticipated modern dancer Merce Cunningham’s “chance” choreography, in which a flip of a coin may determine dance sequences, Balanchine choreographed Serenade with whichever dancers happened to show up each day for rehearsal. For example, the beginning section of Serenade has a corps de ballet of seventeen female dancers—because that was how many were enrolled in the class. Not until Charles Laskey Laskey, Charles joined the rehearsals was a male dancer introduced into the second section. A dancer entered late one day and walked through the lines to search out her place; Balanchine mischievously retained the sequence, a pointed lesson to remind others to come on time. Another dancer slipped, fell, and began to cry, and Balanchine told her to repeat the incident thereafter at the exact same spot in the piece. The ballet, then, became a living witness to the company’s transition from amateur to professional, a veritable history of individual growth.

Serenade begins with daring simplicity: Seventeen girls pose with right arms lifted in salute. They perform standard ports de bras exercises with arms moving slowly along circular paths, movements drawn from the five classic positions of ballet. Then, with deliberate abruptness, the dancers face forward, toward the audience. Suddenly, their legs rotate outward so that they stand resolutely with heels touching. The underlying message is obvious: They acknowledge the three-hundred-year-old tradition of classic ballet and yet announce that they are fully prepared to face whatever the future may bring. They are ready to dance. Extravagantly full-blown movements follow, with great arm sweeps, full backbends, and the fleet footwork that was to become a Balanchine signature.

The ballet’s most gripping sequence is its conclusion, a dreamlike scene in which a man walks slowly across the stage followed by a darkly dressed woman, who covers his eyes with one hand and holds her other hand over his heart. The man’s eyes open, and he beholds a woman at his feet. The three begin to dance, but they are interrupted by streams of dancers who throw themselves into the man’s arms. He attempts to express his love for the woman, but when he places his hand over his heart to pledge his devotion, the dark shadow behind him again covers his eyes and places her chill hand over his heart. He walks away, and the distraught woman is borne offstage by a solemn procession of dancers.

The final scene is noteworthy for its psychological ambiguity: Strong emotions appear to underlie the dancers’ relationships, yet the ballet’s creator denied any attempt to portray a story. Balanchine prided himself on his innovative “plotless” ballets, which discarded the dramatic story line and lush scenery characteristic of many Diaghilev ballets. When a puzzled dowager once demanded to know what one particular ballet was about, he is alleged to have replied pertly, “About twenty minutes.” Serenade evidently held a special meaning for him, however; one night he confessed to a friend that the final scene was “like fate. . . . Each man going through the world with his destiny on his back. He meets a woman—he cares for her—but his destiny has other plans.”

The Hartford premiere was adjudged a glamorous event by its fashionable audience, which included George Gershwin and Salvador Dalí. The American Ballet made its New York City debut with Serenade on March 1, 1935, and Balanchine was to retain his ties with the city, except for a brief period, from then on. Neither the puzzled critic for the New York Post nor John Martin of The New York Times was particularly impressed with Serenade, however. Martin even had the effrontery to suggest that Balanchine ought to be sent back to Paris, where his avant-garde “Riviera esthetics” really belonged, so that he could be replaced by an American-born director.

Kirstein, however, praised Serenade’s “cool frankness, a candor that seemed at once lyric and natively athletic; a straightforward yet passionate clarity and freshness suitable to the foundation of a non-European academy.” He was echoed by the critic of the Dancing Times in London, who commented that “Serenade, which opened the bill, contains some of Balanchine’s most unusual groupings, breathtaking in the sheer beauty of their arrangement. The ’Elegy,’ which forms the closing movement of this ballet, is a little masterpiece of choreographic design.”


The company’s size grew from the original twenty-eight dancers who performed in Hartford that December to forty-five within the next nine months. The season, boasted company supporter Edward Warburg, proved that a first-rate company of American-born dancers could be put together, and that these dancers could even be comparable on a technical level with European imports. Martin of The New York Times had “nothing but praise” for these “hard-working youngsters,” who conveyed “the dignity and purity of the classic style at its best.” The writer for the Dancing Times agreed that inexperienced dancers had been magically transformed into skilled dancers, but pointed out that their artistic maturity still lagged behind.

The company not only proved that Americans could dance well but also raised hopes of establishing an American tradition of ballet that would equal the Russian tradition. Martin had originally welcomed the company in “An Open Letter of Greeting,” in which he complimented the organizers for their “sincere and almost passionate purpose to create an American ballet.” He expressed reservations about the choice of a Russian choreographer—one who would take many years to acquire “a feeling of America, its life and background” and who would “inevitably put the stamp of Europe upon his pupils and dancers in these sensitive and formative years.” The directors of the American Ballet, however, remained adamant in their conviction that their work would one day come to be seen as the building of an American tradition in classical dance. In their brave aspirations and high expectations, they could cite the successes of the early modern dancers of the time such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Helen Tamiris, who were founders of an American dance form of great originality. After the company moved to New York, the American Ballet joined with the Metropolitan Opera ballet for the 1935 to 1938 seasons; in 1946, Balanchine and Kirstein founded the Ballet Society, Ballet Society and in 1948 they were invited to join the New York City Center with the company that became known as the New York City Ballet. New York City Ballet
Ballet companies;New York City Ballet
Serenade became the company’s signature piece.

The New York City Ballet style associated with Balanchine became an international standard by the end of the twentieth century, and plotless ballets, once dismissed as mere avant-garde experiments, became the norm. The cool neoclassicism of the so-called Balanchine ballerina was soon imitated everywhere. The choreographer acknowledged that women had primacy in his ballets—“Ballet is woman,” he was fond of saying. His women all looked alike, even down to their diamond stud earrings; he declared that they must have “skin the color of a peeled apple,” and he chose dancers with coltishly long legs, long necks, small heads, long hair, and prepubescent, even anorexic, physiques. Balanchine’s vision came to dominate the ballet world, with the unfortunate consequence that, even years after his death, many talented dancers, including African American women and women with bustlines, could find only limited performance opportunities in ballet.

In the end, Kirstein and Warburg’s faith in Balanchine was confirmed, and John Martin confessed error. At the moment of Serenade’s premiere, Kirstein was beside himself with impatience to get the company moving, for he had set a deadline to deliver “an American ballet,” free of alien influences and danced by American youths, within a few years after Balanchine’s arrival. It was going to take longer than that, but their vision eventually made debtors of everyone in the ballet world. Serenade (ballet)

Further Reading

  • Balanchine, George, and Francis Mason. Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977. Useful reference source. Chapter on Serenade describes the ballet’s action, with a rare commentary by Balanchine on his own work in which he rejects the notion of “storytelling.” Includes descriptions of other Balanchine works and index.
  • Barnes, Clive. “Serenade.” In Dance and Dancers. London: Hansom Books, 1976. A description of Serenade in honor of the ballet’s performance by the Royal Ballet in 1964. Most writers focus on the ballet’s historical importance as the first Balanchine ballet in the United States, so Barnes’s reactions to the Royal Ballet version, although more journalistic than scholarly, are refreshing. Includes photographs.
  • Buckle, Richard, with John Taras. George Balanchine: Ballet Master. New York: Random House, 1988. One of the most comprehensive biographies of Balanchine available includes previously unpublished information about his early life in Russia. Unfortunately, the author’s effusive praise does a disservice to a subject known for excessive modesty. Features limited bibliography, source notes, photographs, and index.
  • Garafola, Lynn. Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. A selection of essays and reviews by one of the most influential scholars of the history of dance. Covers the transformation of dance, especially ballet, since the early twentieth century. Includes many photographs.
  • Kirstein, Lincoln. The New York City Ballet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. Blends Kirstein’s intensely personal diary jottings with his later recollections. Provides invaluable insights into the founding of the American Ballet. Profusely illustrated with exquisite photographs. Includes appendix containing a list of premiere performances produced by all the Balanchine companies and index.
  • Teachout, Terry. All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2004. Biography by a literary critic emphasizes Balanchine’s personal life while moving through a chronological discussion of the ballets. Includes photographs.
  • Volkov, Solomon. Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine. Translated by Antonia W. Bovis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985. Although normally shy in talking about his sources of creative inspiration or working methods, Balanchine opened up to Volkov, a fellow Russian émigré. The author, a trained musicologist, succeeds in making this provocative book much more than a series of formulaic questions and answers. Sheds indirect light on Balanchine’s emotional life. Includes parallel chronologies of events in Tchaikovsky’s and Balanchine’s lives and index.

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