NYCB dancers in George Balanchine’s Serenade, photo by Paul Kolnik
There was a collective moan of disappointment from the audience on Friday evening at New York City Ballet when it was announced that Darci Kistler, who is retiring at the end of this season, would not be performing in George Balanchine’s Serenade. But with the radiant Jenifer Ringer dancing in her place, along with Teresa Reichlen and Sara Mearns in the other principal roles, it was one of the most sublime performances of Serenade that I have seen in a long time. I had chills down my spine and tears in my eyes.
Tchaikovsky’s luxurious score is moving on its own, but it becomes even more transcendent with the signature opening of the ballet: the corps, scattered across the stage in long blue tulle skirts and serene blue lighting, looks up at their raised right hand that appears to be blocking the sun from their eyes (In fact, the first performance of Serenade, in 1934, was outdoors at Felix Warburg’s estate in White Plains, New York). The rush of movement that follows is superbly attuned to the delicate score for strings. In this performance, there was a crisp urgency to the corps’ dancing that felt incredibly fresh, yet they remained ethereal. As the “fainting girl”, Sara Mearns built on the otherworldly quality of the ballet as she practically floated across the stage in a swirl of movement. I am increasingly amazed by the power and the intensity that she offers in every role.
NYCB dancers in costume for Serenade, photo by NYCB dancer Gwyneth Muller
Although there is no narrative, Serenade weaves themes of loss and sadness with brighter optimism, from the disoriented fainting girl scene, to the cheerful quintet of women in the “Russian Dance” (led by Reichlen), to the partnering section in which Mearns guided Askegard across the stage while covering his eyes, as if wandering blindly. Throughout the performance, these two dancers along with Reichlen and Ringer conveyed the emotional richness that Serenade and Tchaikovsky’s score deserve. The ballet’s closing image is the most achingly beautiful moment in the ballet and has lingered in my memory since Friday. Ringer arched her back as she was carried aloft – a line of women bourree-ing on each side of her and Gwyneth Muller following behind – and slowly ascended towards a faint blue light.
I will always cherish this memorable performance, but for me, every Serenade is special because I was fortunate enough to learn and perform in the ballet in 2002 while attending The Jillana School, a summer ballet program in New Mexico founded by former NYCB principal Jillana. As a company member, she danced every role in Serenade, and as she staged the ballet for me and the other students, listening to her stories about rehearsals with Balanchine was a treat. We performed on an outdoor stage, and just as the piece began, the skies opened up and there was a massive rainstorm. I could barely hear the live accompaniment over the booming thunder, but it was such a thrill – emotionally overwhelming, frighteningly chaotic, and definitely exhilarating. Serenade had never felt so dramatic.
NYCB in Serenade, photo by Paul Kolnik