Gorgeous American Masterpiece

What’s next for Cleveland Ballet? Back in December of 2022 we heard that Cleveland Ballet would be performing Balanchine’s Serenade in April. And every Cleveland Ballet dancer we talked to was very excited about it.

Serenade: a 30 minute ballet by George Balanchine set to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major opus 48. Costumes by Barbara Karinska. “What’s the big deal?” you might ask.

Founding company member Lauren Stenroos put it this way. “I know that one of (Artistic Director Gladisa Guadalupe’s) goals – coming from Balanchine’s School of American Ballet as she does — has been to get some Balanchine repertoire. So the fact that we’re doing Serenade is a huge honor for this company and it’s so exciting for me. This is going to push our company to grow, because Balanchine is so amazing to dance and he’s so musical. This is the first Balanchine ballet that we’ve ever gotten the rights to do. And it was Balanchine’s first ballet in America so it’s cool that it’s our first Balanchine ballet.”

Everybody wants to dance Balanchine.

We spoke on the phone with Deborah Wingert, the répétiteur that the Balanchine Trust assigned to teach Serenade to Cleveland Ballet.

CCD: Tell our readers, please, about the Balanchine Trust and how it works.

Deborah Wingert: The Balanchine Trust was designed to protect the ballets created by Mr. Balanchine so that we can teach these ballets in a system that will allow the ballets to continue to grow and live. It was originally, I believe, thought of as a way to provide work for the Balanchine dancers as their careers were morphing and moving on. At a certain point, people said, “Wait, we have to make certain that these ballets stay protected,” so now you have to have a license in order to dance a Balanchine ballet; you have to submit video to the Balanchine Trust and they will look and find a répétiteur that they can send to the school.

CCD: A répétiteur. So you’re the rehearsal director.

DW: Right. I know everybody’s part in the ballet when I stage something so, for Serenade, I know all of the dancers’ parts – male, female – and I teach everyone what they do.

CCD: Which is a lot of parts. Although Serenade starts with 17 dancers moving in unison, pretty soon people start to run around in complex patterns…

DW: Absolutely. It starts out with that beautiful formation of the 17 women who showed up for rehearsal the first day and eventually includes, all together, 26 dancers.

CCD: Please say a word or two about costumes and other support provided by the Balanchine Trust.

DW: Originally, Serenade was danced on a lawn in tunics and since then the costumes have gone through various incarnations, but the Karinska costumes, which are used today, were credited to her in 1952. The costumes have a very unique hue — there’s a beige insert where the legs are – and the skirt is on a slight diagonal which matches the diagonal the women stand on at the beginning. Balanchine would say things like, “Orange groves in California,” or “You’re standing in the moonlight.” Very evocative of, just, humanity. The lighting and the cyclorama are this gorgeous, gorgeous blue. The lighting is very simple, just three lighting cues in the entire ballet.

There’s also the orchestra. When I come back to Cleveland I’ll be working with the Cleveland Ballet Orchestra to get them up to speed because Balanchine was very specific about tempos.

CCD: (A first for Cleveland Ballet, a live string orchestra of 25 players conducted by Caleb Young, with concert master and violinist Alexandra Preucil.) Not everybody knows who Balanchine is, so please give our readers an introduction to the man and his importance to ballet in America and the world.

DW:  Balanchine grew up in the Mariinsky Theater as a dancer and as a pianist. He suffered through the Russian Revolution and in the early 1920s he decided to get out of Russia and try his hand in Europe. He was working mostly as a choreographer when he met Lincoln Kirstein and decided to take that leap of faith and come to America. Arriving in late 1933, he opened the School of American Ballet in January of 1934 with the help of Kirstein and Edward M. M. Warburg. In June of that same year his ballet students performed Serenade at the Warburg estate.

CCD: A glorified recital piece for his school, if I may say so.

DW: Exactly. Originally Balanchine used only 3 of Tchaikovsky’s 4 movements — Sonatina, Waltz, and Russian Theme — but later he choreographed the Elegy and put it at the end.

CCD: What is Serenade’s place in the canon? What are the stories about its creation?  And what is the narrative that emerges?

DW: Well, he told all of us that there’s really no story. We’re in the orange groves; we’re looking at the moonlight; we reach towards the sun. The music tells the story inasmuch as it can. But there are characters. There’s the Waltz Woman, the Dark Angel, and the Russian Dancer. Those are mostly from the musical structure of the piece.

The ballet developed in a very simple way. Seventeen people showed up the first day and on the second day there were 6. So that’s what he choreographed with. In one rehearsal a dancer fell down and he left that in. A dancer was late; he left that in. Balanchine was always a practical choreographer. He used what he had.

With Serenade, he wanted to teach his students how to dance and how to dance better. So, all of the steps really make you a better dancer. It teaches you how to run, how to get up and down on pointe, how to dance with people. Parts of it are moderate, parts slow, and parts are quite, quite fast, especially in the Russian Theme. Serenade was Balanchine’s labor of love for his dancers.

Weeks after we spoke with Wingert, Cleveland Ballet offered an open rehearsal for media types like ourselves. We had seen a lot of Balanchine’s choreography — both in what was then called the New York State Theater and on video — but we’d never before seen Serenade live and certainly not up close in a studio setting. Wingert and the dancers of Cleveland Ballet have put together a gorgeous, gorgeous staging of this 20th century American masterpiece. See it if you possibly can.

Also on the program, the world premiere of Symphony of Life with a commissioned score by Anna Segal and choreography by Ilia Zhivoi. Like Balanchine, Zhivoi was trained at the Mariinsky where he was a dancer and choreographer in residence. Watching Symphony of Life in open rehearsal, we sat up straighter when we realized that Zhivoi had found a way to innovate within the principles of classical dance.

George Balanchine’s Serenade, from presenting sponsor Charles Abookire in loving memory of his wife, Sandra Hanna Abookire, with Symphony of Life will premiere with Cleveland Ballet Orchestra at Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace Theatre at 7:00pm on Friday 4/21 and Saturday 4/22. Tickets can be purchased online at (playhousesquare.org/events/detail/george-balanchines-serenade-and-spring-collection) or by phoning 216-320-9000 X 107 or emailing tickets@clevelandballet.org.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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