A story of Balanchine
By Toni Bentley
Toni Bentley’s sixth book, “Serenade,” is a tribute not only to Georgian-American choreographer George Balanchine’s timeless titular ballet, but to the art form as well. Bentley, who danced under Balanchine at New York City Ballet for a decade in the 1970s and 1980s, tells a story as vivid and poetic as the dance itself.
“‘Serenade’ is, for me, a map of Balanchine’s soul,” she wrote, and as the first ballet he created in America, in 1934, it became something of an initiation rite. for all the dancers who have had the chance to dance for him since. As Bentley puts it, “Every girl who has stood in one of these two air diamonds of the opening formation has stood where many have stood before her in apostolic succession.”
But “Serenade” the book is more than the making of a single ballet; it’s an introspective nod to the life lessons taught by movement, told from the perspective of a young ballerina whose underlying motivation boiled down to “no romance, no tulle, no tiara, no spotlight, no dreams of fame, just a relentless push to survive when I was told I couldn’t.
I haven’t danced “Serenade” yet, but I have felt the spirit of the movements through Bentley’s descriptive prose. She weaves in impressive detail about actual ballet technique, articulating the physical experience of the dancer for the reader. Participation, she writes – “the rotation of both legs from the hip sockets in opposite outward directions, simultaneously” – is both the “core” and the “central contradiction” of classical ballet. But at the start of “Sérénade”, Balanchine asks the 17 dancers on stage to turn their feet “in parallel, like ordinary mortals”. Given their training, this position seems so uncomfortable and unbalanced that when, a minute and a half into the piece, they suddenly turn their feet outward, the physical relief coincides with a deep sense of openness. “Turnout offers all directions, all directions, all directions,” Bentley writes. “When parallel divisions open, the world also divides.”
Bentley traces the history of ballet from its origins at the court of King Louis XIV – who attempted by royal decree to regulate dancers’ techniques and “clean up the endemic practice of jumping up and down” – to contemporary works of today. And in this long arc, she places Balanchine’s own evolution from Georgi Balanchivadze, a “son of Russian imperial heritage,” to an egalitarian visionary in the West. “Serenade,” she says, showcased her idea that the dancer reigned supreme, as she never had before. In a careful reading of a particular movement within this abstract ballet, Bentley convincingly demonstrates that through the back and forth between a solo dancer and the ensemble she aspires to join, Balanchine has “equalized “all its performers,” freeing the soloists from their rigidity, the pedestals and the corps de ballet from its decorative function, thus freeing both. The ramifications for form were significant: “Balanchine did not change an aspect of the art…that he pushed it, in its lush entirety, onto entirely new ground. Overturning classical tradition, he brought democracy to ballet.
Reading Bentley’s “Serenade” made me feel as alive as I felt on stage when I fell in love with ballet: with its grounded fantasy, physical demands, intellectual challenge, structure and beauty. . Like the author, I too was drawn to the fight to be at my best, to chase perfection, to prove myself.
Although Bentley’s relationship with Balanchine did not develop until the end of her life – she writes that she sat by his hospital bed before her death in 1983 – her influence remains with her today. Returning from a hip injury at age 25, four months after his death, Bentley persuaded his joint to heal ‘inch by inch’, until ‘I was dancing better than ever, because now it was really , well, life or death for me. The “fuego”, the “fire”, to which Balanchine sometimes referred in class, was lit.
“Serenade” is a book that will delight balletomanes for generations to come; but it will also appeal to newcomers to the world of dance, with its delicate balance between personal memories, rarefied elegance, art history and pure human interest.