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The Stories of Serenade: Nonprofit History and George Balanchine's "First Ballet in America"



James Steichen
Working Paper #46, Spring 2012

Abstract: George Balanchine’s Serenade numbers among the choreographer’s most performed and best beloved ballets. The enduring appeal of the work is easy to grasp, with both seasoned balletomane and dance neophyte finding much to delight in, whether the fluidity and speed of the steps, the iconic arrangements and transformations of the corps, or the energy underlying Balanchine’s reinterpretation of classical technique. What arguably makes Serenade most quintessentially Balanchine, however, is not just these choreographic qualities but its purported lack of an underlying story. The ballet “tells its story musically and choreographically, without any extraneous narrative,” as Balanchine maintained.

Although it is true that Serenade was the first completely new ballet created by Balanchine in the United States, its outsized historical profile was not in evidence at the piece’s inception in 1934, with the “first in America” story of Serenade emerging only several decades after its first performances. A review of sources close to the creation of the ballet and comparisons with more recent dance history and scholarship shows how and why the “first in America” story of Serenade began to be told. I argue that the “first in America” story not only grants historical import to a now-central masterpiece in the Balanchine canon but helps to elide the aesthetic and institutional promiscuity of the choreographer’s early decades in the United States. The insistent hailing of Serenade as “Balanchine’s first in America” has enabled ballet critics and historians to tell an aesthetically purer story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest choreographers and has lent a teleological inevitability to the institutional culmination of Balanchine’s career, the founding of the New York City Ballet, stories which, like the ballet itself, nevertheless contain a great deal of beauty and truth.

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