It would be hard to find a ballet audience member who isn’t entranced by George Balanchine’s Serenade. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings Op. 48, the piece has become something of an icon for the Balanchine style. In the view of critic Edwin Denby, it is Serenade that earns Balanchine the distinction of heir of the Russian Imperial ballet tradition. “It is a completely beautiful ballet,” he says, and stands as emblematic of Balanchine’s technique:
His style is classical: grand without being impressive, clear without being strict. It is humane because it is based on the patterns the human body makes when it dances; it is not—like romantic choreography—based on patterns the human body cannot quite force itself into.
Denby ascribes an organicism to Serenade—it’s a ballet that is seemingly “just right.” This quality is echoed by dance critic and historian Nancy Goldner, who reports that as a child she thought that the ballets she saw on stage had not been created by any individual—that they had simply existed in nature for all time. She is convinced that it was Serenade that helped instill such a notion in her mind.
This mythic allure of Serenade is easy to understand, for the ballet offers much in which both seasoned balletomane and dance neophyte can delight: the fluidity of the steps, the iconic transformations of the corps, the energy underlying Balanchine’s classical technique. What makes Serenade an especially exemplary Balanchine ballet, however, is not just its style and latent musicality but its lack of an explicit narrative. The ballet “tells its story musically and choreographically, without any extraneous narrative,” as Balanchine maintained, and seems to foreclose any discrete dramatic, erotic, or narrative possibilities. This does not mean that there is no story to Serenade—just no characters or discrete plot. As Balanchine explained in his “Marginal Notes on the Dance,” music and dance supply their own story:
Music is often adjectived as being too abstract. This is a vague and dangerous use of words and as unclear to me as when my ballets are described this way. Neither a symphony nor a fugue nor a sonata ever strikes me as being abstract. It is very real to me, very concrete, though ‘storyless.’ But storyless is not abstract. Two dancers on stage are enough for a story; for me, they are already a story in themselves.
There is, then, a story of sorts in Serenade, just no libretto with a specific hero and villain and setting.
Not surprisingly and somewhat ironically, however, this allegedly story-less ballet has in fact been the subject of a voluminous number of stories with heroes, villains, and very specific settings. In fact Serenade seems to have more stories to tell than any other by Balanchine, stories that both inhere in the ballet itself and are also implicitlyintertwined with its history and continued life in the repertory. Everyone has a story to tell about Serenade, or sees some kind of story in the ballet.
Denby, like many other critics, can’t seem to help himself, calling the ballet a “kind of graduation exercise” in which “the dancers seem to perform all the feats they have learned.”5 He reaffirms that there is in fact no story, but nevertheless, “there seems to be a girl who meets a boy; he comes on with another girl and for a while all three are together; then, at the end, the first girl is left alone and given a sort of tragic little apotheosis.”
Indeed, if the ballet doesn’t relate an explicit plot, there always “seems” to be some story at work in Serenade, it’s just that no one can agree on what it is, even as they must assiduously reassert its “storyless” status. Like Denby, Goldner manages to have it both ways by maintaining that Serenade consists of a story, but a story stripped bare: “a narrative of sorts is going on, but there is no motivation, depiction of character, or other characteristics of traditional narrative to tell us where we are. The things that happen in Serenade just happen.”7 In this sense, the storyless quality of Serenade reinforces its organicist and “just-right” qualities, the feeling that it has existed for all time, much like an ancient ritual or myth.
If Serenade conjures these mythic qualities in and of itself, the ballet also figures prominently in a mythic institutional narrative in its capacity as the so-called first ballet that Balanchine created after coming to America in 1933. This “first in America” status has stuck to the ballet as insistently as any Homeric epithet and overshadows all other stories ascribed to or told about the work. Although it is technically true that Serenade was the first completely new ballet created by Balanchine in the United States, its special status in the repertory was not in evidence at the piece’s inception in 1934. In fact, the “first in America” discourse surrounding Serenade emerged only several decades after its first performances. In the pages that follow, a review of sources close to the creation of the ballet and comparisons with more recent dance history and scholarship will demonstrate how the “first in America” story of Serenade emerged retrospectively as a kind of myth of origins.