Shall We Dance: Balanchine Sets Tchaikovsky In Motion

Apr 20, 2018
Originally published on April 21, 2018 7:00 am

Growing up as an avid violinist, Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings was one of my favorite and most rewarding pieces to play. The fact that it was a staple in the repertoire of the New York City Ballet, where my dear parents, Ruth and Lamar Alsop were orchestra musicians, made it even more special. As a kid, I watched in awe as the dancers of the NYCB, under the brilliant and ever watchful eye of choreographer George Balanchine ("Mr. B"), brought Tchaikovsky's music to life.

I remember "Mr. B" standing at the edge of the orchestra pit, towering over the musicians – but eye to eye with the amazing (and very large) conductor, Robert Irving – yelling "follow the music, listen, hear the music, let the music lead you!" I was both terrified and awestruck as Tchaikovsky's majestic opening chords rang out in the darkness.

For Balanchine, Tchaikovsky's Serenade was a transformative piece. It was the work he chose to choreograph and teach the very first dancers at the newly formed School for American Ballet in 1934, shortly after he came to the United States. The school continues to operate today as a training ground for, among others, the New York City Ballet. Balanchine co-founded that company in 1946 (as the Ballet Society) and served as artistic director until his death in 1983.

That first performance of Balanchine's Serenade was far from perfect. The choreographer had a different number of dancers for every rehearsal, but he took all obstacles in stride, incorporating them into his story. When a dancer fell, or one came late, he worked those mishaps into the plot.


Serenade, in many ways, tells Balanchine's own story. In his journey, he seized new opportunities and, through determination and vision, brought ballet to America. Tchaikovsky's Serenade is, similarly, a window into the composer's soul, where he shares his deepest emotions.

In the fall of 1880, Tchaikovsky worked on two pieces simultaneously. The first was commissioned for the unveiling of a memorial to Pushkin in Moscow. Tchaikovsky said that he wrote it "with no warm feeling of love, and therefore there will probably be no sincere music it." It turned out to be that perennial crowd-pleaser known as the 1812 Overture.

The other work was "a heartfelt piece" Tchaikovsky said was composed "from inner conviction." His inspiration, at least in part, was Mozart's opera The Magic Flute.

There's a freshness and charm to the Serenade for Strings that reflects how enchanted Tchaikovsky was by Mozart's music. At the first public performance, Tchaikovsky's glorious waltz movement had to be repeated. The thematic integration throughout the work is both stunning and subtle. The descending scale that opens the Serenade later becomes an ascending scale to launch the waltz. Tchaikovsky brings in his Russian heritage too, using folk songs in the finale. And then, in the coda, he closes the loop, to reveal that the exuberant folk tune and the solemn theme that opened the serenade are, in fact, relatives.

For me, Balanchine's Serenade is the coming together of many stories, many circles and a celebration of our deep connection as human beings.

Every time I hear Tchaikovsky's music, or conduct it, I can't help but think of all those years ago, watching the proud Russian choreographer who ended up in America and who created one of the world's best ballet companies.

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Tchaikovsky wrote only three scores for ballet, but they sure were blockbusters - "The Nutcracker," "The Sleeping Beauty" and this music from "Swan Lake." Next week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will present a program of Tchaikovsky's music associated with dance, including a performance of the suite from "Swan Lake." But the centerpiece of the show will be a work that Tchaikovsky did not compose for dancers, the "Serenade For Strings In C Major."


SIMON: "Serenade" was transformed into a ballet by George Balanchine in 1934. Dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts will join the BSO on stage next week. They were guided by Deborah Wingert and Balanchine protege Heather Watts. Heather Watts joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HEATHER WATTS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And we're also joined by Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony at the studios of WYPR. Maestra, thank you for being back with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be back with you, Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: Marin, What is it about the music you think that might propel the emotion of the work into a ballet?

ALSOP: You know, we should mention early on that while Heather was dancing so beautifully on the stage at the New York City Ballet, my parents were performing in the orchestra. And I was, you know, sort of part of the musical family there, so we watched this come to life together.

And what always struck me was how musical George Balanchine was. You know, music spoke to him in a way that one would hope it would speak to every choreographer. And this music is filled with emotion. The same year Tchaikovsky was writing "Serenade," he also wrote a piece that he felt had very little emotion from his point of view. Probably his most popular piece, it's the "1812 Overture."

WATTS: I didn't know that. Interesting.

SIMON: Heather Watts, when you and Deborah Wingert work with young dancers, what do you tell them about Balanchine?

WATTS: Well, interestingly, "Serenade" was choreographed for Balanchine's first students when he arrived in America.


WATTS: The centerpiece of the music is a waltz, really. It represents a huge amount of human emotion, but actually no story. So you know, Balanchine choreographed "Serenade" to teach his students how to be on stage.


ALSOP: It's fascinating to hear that this was almost like the calisthenics piece - you know, the piece that he built in order to teach these young dancers about classical ballet. And my favorite thing about this piece, Heather, when I would watch it as a kid, I can remember Mr. B - we always called him Mr. B - standing at the edge of the pit, you know, towering over the musicians.

WATTS: Totally.

ALSOP: And he would say - yell to the stage, let the music - well, in his incredible Russian accent, I think is what he was saying - let the music drive what you do.

SIMON: Let's listen to a bit from the "Elegie" from the "Serenade."


SIMON: Let me ask you both what we see in what sounds like an emotional climax onstage.

WATTS: Well, you've just seen a dancer collapse onto the stage, and her hair flies out of her bun, and she falls on the floor. Apparently this actually happened in rehearsal. A girl fell, and he used that image, and he repeatedly uses the image within "Serenade."

There's a moment when a young woman enters late. There's 16 women standing on the stage, still, and she comes rushing in. And it was a young lady who came late to rehearsal, so he kept using kind of plumbing for things that happened. But this image of the young lady alone on the stage is incredibly drama-filled and sort of a prophecy of, almost, if you will, life and death.


SIMON: Heather Watts, you became the principal ballerina of the New York City Ballet in 1979. What was the artist they call Mr. B, George Balanchine, like to work with?

WATTS: He was kind and rigorous. He really tried to guide us to be precise, to respect each other, respect the music first, even respect our costumes. He didn't like us to sit on the floor in our costumes. He felt that we should be respectful of the theater, of the audience and of ourselves. It was almost religious in its fervor. Some people refer to that kind of golden age of Balanchine's New York City Ballet as a cult. If it was, it's a cult I'd gladly sign up for again. He pushed us to do what was impossible.

SIMON: That's Heather Watts, who, along with Deborah Wingert, worked with dancers performing Tchaikovsky's "Serenade" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next week. Thanks so much for being with us.

WATTS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony. Before we go, Maestra, we have to note a special event coming to Baltimore next month - a centennial tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

ALSOP: And it's a special event because we have one of the most special people joining the Baltimore Symphony, Scott Simon.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ALSOP: You don't want to miss it.

SIMON: Well, I just key up the ball for you, Maestra.


SIMON: And I'll join the Maestra onstage in Baltimore for that Leonard Bernstein celebration on May 5. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.