The orchestra started playing too soon after the audience had finished clapping. Andrew Sill launched into Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade For Strings,” and I thought, “That’s it? The big moment? The beginning of the ballet I’ve been anticipating all year?”
That opening phrase was loaded. I'd listened to the CD of "Serenade" (pronounced like tapenade) countless times after my closest friend gave it to me the year I was in ninth grade. I still had the pointe shoes she wore in her "Serenade" performance at the boarding school that had separated her from me in those days when I loved dance and her more than anything. I'd danced to "Serenade" in my bedroom but had not watched the ballet. With all this anticipation, I could have easily written a sappy piece about finally seeing New York City Ballet perform the first piece that Balanchine, City Ballet’s late, great choreographer made in America. The essay would describe how my expectations were either realized or disappointed. I could have written that essay without ever seeing the ballet.
Here's what really happened.
After the first phrase, the orchestra stopped and the conductor started to talk. This wasn’t the beginning of the ballet after all but a lesson about the music. Balanchine changed the order of the last two movements of Tchaikovsky’s score, Maestro Sill told the audience, in order to end with the “Elegy” that I’ve written about before. The “Elegy” ends with harmonics, high-pitched whistling sounds created when string players barely touch their fingers to the strings above the wooden fingerboard, instead of pressing them down. Sill said that he thinks of the harmonics rising Heavenward, the kind of religious sentiment I avoid, but then he dedicated the performance to the late Hugo Fiorato, a former conductor of New York City Ballet’s orchestra and his first conducting teacher who died April 23, 2012. If anybody were going to dedicate a performance to me, that “Elegy” is the one I would choose. Or “Pavane For A Dead Princess,” though I would feel uncomfortable about the implications there.
With that dedication, “Serenade” began in earnest. A Stonehenge of dancers, standing straight, one arm held out high. A field of females in their hard-toed shoes, long blue sleeveless dresses, waiting until Balanchine tells them to move. Their bare thin arms make quick, concave motions, somehow Grecian. They are his muses; he is their sun, immortal in his choreography and his legacy.
"Serenade" is many domino chains of precise movement, one dancer moving after the next, with just enough repetition for familiarity but not enough for boredom. By the end of the first movement, one female is singled out. She waltzes with her partner in the second movement.
During the next, folk-like movement, pointe shoes becomes clogs, and the dancers intentionally make them noisy (dancers try NOT to clomp), beating the toe of a pointed foot against the stage in a pose called “B+”. This is stylized clomping, not quite at home in ballet nor in a country dance.
At the end of the this movement, I realized that in the “Serenade” poster I’d seen, the female dancers had long, flowing hair. These dancers all had buns. Yes, at the end of the movement, the lead dancer falls to the floor and lets her hair down, as do two other women. I have mixed feelings about women’s hair being part of the choreography, about the male choreographer deciding the women should let down their hair. I don’t know why I feel this way now.
Why do I feel uncomfortable appreciating the visual beauty of ballerinas? I love ballet and respect Balanchine. It’s not wrong for a choreographer to appreciate dancers’ beauty. And in life, it’s not wrong for men to appreciate the beauty of women in ways that go beyond art. Or for women to do so. Anyway, dancers are concerned with their own reflections in the classroom mirror, audience aside. I am that way when I take ballet class, either correcting myself in the mirror or avoiding it, never indifferent to it. I don’t perform.
Yes, the women make a living by being beautiful, physically, artistically. A ballerina had to be beautiful to Balanchine in order to succeed in his ballet company, and the company had to be beautiful to the audience in order to stay in business.
So I’m not criticizing Balanchine any more than I would criticize Petipa or myself or any other audience member for loving to watch ballet. But my discomfort remains.
For most of this piece, there is only one man and many women. At the very end of the "Elegy," two other men come out, in order to pick up the fallen dancer by her pointed feet, and she stands above their shoulders like an elegant, sublime cheerleader. They carry her away as the women rise onto their toes, arms outstretched, yes, to the Heavens.
The ending felt beautiful and right to me.
The second piece, “Kammermusik No. 2,” reverses the gender ratio: it’s almost all men. Hindemith’s music took more of my attention than the dance. It made me think of so many other composers at once, but I can’t think of who they are. It sounds like a musical revolution, competing styles fighting for prominence.
The third piece, “Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux,” is Balanchine’s choreography for a bit of the “Swan Lake” score that, according to the program notes, was composed later than the rest, didn’t make it into the ballet, then got overlooked. The best part of this section was not the lost pas de deux but the male and female solos that followed, encores taken from “Swan Lake” proper. Tiler Peck did the fouetté turns for which “Swan Lake” is so famous; her partner, Joaquin de Luz, did the male equivalent of fouettés, turns in second (with one leg out to the side) — and a few little jumps, too. The crowd screamed wholeheartedly. You don’t need to know what a fouetté is to see that this was amazing. After the performance, the dancers bowed and curtsied in the usual courtly way, which seemed ridiculous in response to the hooting in the crowd. Modesty.
Intermission: The Plastic Flute
Intermission was a story not of modesty but of self-importance. I stood in line to buy a plastic flute of champagne from a bartender standing in front of a bowl of shimmering strawberries. A woman carrying her own flute cut to the front of the line and asked the bartender for a strawberry.
“All these people behind you are waiting for strawberries; I’m sorry,” the bartender said.
“Why aren’t there strawberries over there [where she’d gotten her champagne]?” the woman pestered.
“’Cause I’m the only one who has ‘em,” he answered, in a circular way. “That makes me special doesn’t it. I’m the strawberry man.”
The woman huffed off.
“Would you like a strawberry?” he asked me, when it was my turn.
“Oh yes, I must,” I replied. I was wearing a full backpack, turtleneck dress and jeans.
I drank my champagne out on the balcony, in the cool but not rainy night.
After an intermission, the choreography turned to another bird ballet: “Firebird.” This was the beautiful scenery of Russian painter, Marc Chagall, come to life. Or is the painting real life made inanimate? No, this is real life filtered and embellished through Chagall’s mind and his paintbrush, then brought back to life again in ballet, a form that is to the way people really move what Chagall’s paintings are to the way things really look.
The prince wears strawberry-red velvet pants. The ladies of the royal court wear long white, embroidered dresses, some with blue velvet tunics, long hairpieces dangling behind them. The toes of the men’s shoes point up at the ends in a comic, Russian way, something that I suppose is no more ridiculous than the heels of women’s shoes pointing down. These dancers are fairy tale characters in their own world. I forget that this is Balanchine. Instead, it’s a royal court and a magical bird dancing the way they normally do.
The Firebird dances in a spotlight that follows her around the stage, and in that spotlight, she casts a shadow on the stage. Her arms and legs flit around the round shadow of her tutu.
Firebird was one of two unimaginably beautiful experiences I’ve had this week. The first was the peonies and azaleas at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. So I’ve been similarly bowled over by nature and by a fantastical story performed in dreamy, trippy costumes designed after Chagall. Is nature actually fantastic? Maybe Chagall’s “wild imagination” is capturing reality. Perhaps what we consider our real lives — going to offices, walking down sidewalks — are not practical realities dictated by fate but actually inferior products of human imagination.
I was neither fully satisfied nor disappointed with “Serenade,” but my night at the ballet surpassed my expectations. It seems too much to see the reverence of “Serenade,” the technical magic of “Swan Lake” and the majesty of Stravinsky, Chagall, Balanchine, not to mention the dancers themselves, in “Firebird” all in one evening. It’s like having four desserts in a row.
Actually, not too much. I could get used to this.
So, what’s for after dinner?