Why ‘Serenade’ Was Made for Students


This weekend, PBT School graduate students perform Balanchine’s sweeping Serenade – his first original ballet in America and a New York City Ballet signature to this day. Many love it above all his works, but few know students comprised the original cast.

During the creation of this work, unexpected rehearsal antics would take on profound effect. Balanchine originally choreographed Serenade in 1934 for students of the School of American Ballet in New York, soon after his arrival in America.

Set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48., it started as a lesson in stage technique, gradually incorporating unexpected rehearsal events into the choreography.

As the choreography unfolded over a series of evening classes, Balanchine improvised on the students that showed up and the situations that evolved. The first night, the class comprised 17 girls and no boys – sparking the ballet’s famous opening scene. When boys began to attend the class, he integrated them into the movement.

“One day, when all the girls rushed off the floor area we were using as a stage, one of the girls fell and began to cry. I told the pianist to keep on playing and kept this bit in the dance. Another day, one of the girls was late for class, so I left that in too,” Balanchine writes in his “101 Stories of the Great Ballets.”

Although it sprang from ordinary events, the work took on a more dramatic, transcendent aura as Balanchine readied it for the stage.

When the curtain rises, lines of ballerinas stand with arms and eyes raised, palms pressed toward stage right. This arresting image sets the tone for the rest of this work, which this weekend will feature 26 graduate dancers. As the dance unfolds before a deep blue background, this non-narrative work seems to take on a deeper meaning, suggesting a human story of love, elation and loss.

“Parts of the ballet seem to have a story: the apparently “pure” dance takes on a kind of plot. But this plot, inherent, in 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,” according to “101 Stories of the Great Ballets.”

For 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.”

Sources: The George Balanchine Trust and Balanchine and Mason. 101 Stories of the Great Ballets. Random House, 1989. Print.

See the rising talents of PBT School’s Graduate Program perform Serenade at Pre-Professional Showcases, May 13-15, at Point Park University, and Spring Performance 2016, May 20-21, at the Byham Theater. For tickets and details, click here.  


Photo credits: 

Choreography by George Balanchine
© The George Balanchine Trust

From top to bottom:
Photo by: Rich Sofranko
Artists: PBT School students

Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea
Artist: PBT Soloist Gabrielle Thurlow