Serenade: A Balanchine Fever Dream

Toni Bentley has a new book out, called Serenade: A Balanchine Story, a title that matches its contents well. Although the book is autobiographical, the author’s personal experiences are intentionally sublimated to the “real” story: George Balanchine’s ascendance as the preeminent choreographer of the twentieth century, with the ballet Serenade posited as a sacred object that encapsulates the totality of his life and legacy.

This is a book written for the already-converted and has already won early praise from its intended readership, those who believe that Balanchine and his work are the most significant force in the last century of ballet. It will more than satisfy this demographic, especially those who have seen, or even better danced in, Serenade and other Balanchine ballets. The influential Kirkus Reviews explains how the book “endearingly captures her passion for ballet and the genius of a man who could incorporate a ballerina’s fall during rehearsal into a permanent part of his dance,” and lauds the book as a “heartfelt tribute to an influential choreographer and one of his crowning achievements.” Publishers Weekly notes that “her reverence for Balanchine’s genius is consistently moving” and the book’s “behind-the-scenes tour of a rarefied world will enchant ballet lovers.”

As someone who unlike Bentley was not brought up in the Church of Balanchine, but instead came to him later in life as an audience member and later researcher and writer, I find it hard to square these assessments of this book with the reality of its contents. For in the world conjured by Bentley, ballet and Balanchine exist in pure and unblemished glory, and if anything negative happened to her or other individuals it was all in service to this higher cause and evidently worth the pain and suffering. Of course, we know that all was never completely well in Balanchine land, whether in the form of his string of troubled marriages culminating in his tumultuous relationship with Suzanne Farrell, or the turmoil and abuse that took place under the leadership of his anointed successor, Peter Martins. Bentley seems unaware or uninterested in these matters, and even less interested in any of the wider critiques and reforms shaping discussions about the future of the art form, whether issues of physical and mental health or matters of race, gender, equity, and access. Bentley’s viewpoint is unabashedly nostalgic, an attempt to remember and recapture a lost paradise. Among other matters, at no point does Bentley acknowledge her position as a white woman, a status without which she would have had a much more difficult time entering into Balanchine’s sacred realm.

One immediate reaction to Bentley is to simply put the book down and not read any further, a decision for which I would not fault anyone, especially those who have been personally damaged or hurt by their time spent in ballet culture. For the wrong reader this book would be an extended exercise in gaslighting or even worse re-traumatization, depicting some of the worst practices and ideologies of ballet in glowing and approving terms with no regard to their potential impact on human lives. One can only hope that no young dancer will pick up this book and use it as a guide on how to conceptualize their relationship to the art form or their teachers and colleagues. 

Read against the grain, however, Bentley’s book can serve some purpose, as a cry for help or cautionary tale, an unwitting case study that might help diagnose many of ballet’s past sins and present ills. Indeed, if an author such as Chloe Angyal had articulated some of Bentley’s views as a foil to her own arguments about how ballet can and must adapt and change, she could have easily been accused of setting up a straw man, an overly caricatured representation of a contrary viewpoint. In this sense, Bentley has done ballet’s change agents a strange service, rendering in vivid detail and rich metaphor the rigid patriarchal world that many are trying to remake and reform.

*****

Bentley’s argument lies in its structure and rhetorical decision to tell three stories in one. The book moves seamlessly in and out of three modes: her own autobiography and encounters with Balanchine, a second-by-second close reading of Serenade (incorporating insights from teachers and fellow dancers), and excursions into ballet history (from Louis XIV to Marie Taglioni to Tchaikovsky and Serge Diaghilev). In the manner of Christian exegesis that elucidates the fulfillment of the Old Testament by the New, these parallel narratives mutually validate one another, leading to an unapologetic and triumphant teleology, with Balanchine the final consummation of ballet history and Serenade his most potent creation.

Balanchine looms large throughout all of these narrative modes. In the autobiographical passages he is depicted as a figure of benevolent holiness, erotic and romantic fascination, and cold judgement. His dancers are said to exist beyond the category of “gender” and instead are rooted in “vocation,” called “novices in Balanchine’s ministry.” While this might imply a chastity to the proceedings, these same dancers are taught to “turn the cheek as if waiting for a kiss. The kiss of fate, the kiss he might bestow.” What is not at all ambiguous, however, is the power that Balanchine wields in his world, and how this power is tied to feelings of love and fear: “As young girls, we are all scared of him–he has the love we want, the only love we want.” Serenade is an exercise in initiation (one almost wants to say grooming), posited as “a dance of the young, by the young, many still virgins–I certainly was one.” If a dancer is to make a mistake in this sacred rite, there is no way to atone for it, as even an apology to Balanchine will not be accepted. “You can’t mess up the ballet, dear,” he reportedly says after one such futile attempt, a somewhat detached and almost inhuman response to such a perilous moment for the dancer in question. This miasma of innocence, eroticism, and power is not regarded as anything troubling, however, but rendered as a treasured feature of Balanchine’s world. 

Initiation into this world happens at an early age, and in Bentley’s case began during her student years as a dancer drawn from the ranks of the School of American Ballet during rehearsals for Nutcracker, when she first “laid eyes” on Balanchine. He evidently treated children with unaccustomed “respect and kindness,” and in return they would grow over time to think of him as the lodestar of their entire existence, inspiring everyone to give over their entire selves in exchange for being shaped in his image:

“And so it was here that the love for Balanchine began. Just how much a little girl wants to please that man of authority can never be measured. Looking at the devotion, sacrifice, time–their entire youth–and beauty Balanchine’s dancers gave him is one way to see the depth. But what is even harder to grasp is the breath of what he gave us. So much more than a benign father, he offered life itself, a life not a single one of us would have had otherwise.”

In moments like this in the book I found myself turning back to the previous paragraphs to be reminded what the point of departure was for these moments of ecstatic reverie. In this case it was Bentley being allowed to don a pink and green striped jumpsuit adorned with bells while carrying a similarly decorated hoop as backup to the male soloist in the “Russian” divertissement in the second act of Nutcracker. While I would be the last person to disparage the magic of Nutcracker, the fact that sixty seconds on stage can be construed as a reason to pledge one’s entire life to the man who made the steps is the kind of thinking that ballet should be moving away from, not running towards. 

*****

Serenade is a ballet deserving of sustained critical attention, as a beautiful work of dance and one of the earliest ballets by Balanchine to have remained in continuous performance. It is famously lauded as Balanchine’s “first ballet in America,” a status that despite being easily problematized has stuck to the work as tenaciously as a Homeric epithet. Bentley is not interested in the more complicated history of Serenade (despite including recent scholarship in her bibliography), which at the start of Balanchine’s time in the US was emblematic not of his inevitable triumph but indicative of how much he still had to learn and how far the ballet enterprise he created with Lincoln Kirstein had to go. 

In Bentley’s hands Serenade becomes laden with an overwhelming web of metaphors and meanings, especially ironic for a ballet by Balanchine, who famously dismissed any complicated takes on his work as “too fancy.” Diagrams of the ballet’s movements made by John Taras are likened to da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, “converting spirit to physics and then, onstage, back again.” One moment in the ballet is likened to Stonehenge, “an outdoor temple of secret ceremony, worship, death, resurrection, and astronomy.” With respect to the past, Serenade is posited as the uncritical consummation of all ballet history. Hearkening back to the aristocratic ballets of Louis XIV, it reveals ballet transfigured in democratic garb–“an uncorrupted aristocratic art form no longer defined by birth, a difficult but attainable democratic nobility”–a questionable claim in light of the art form’s ongoing problems of access. Serenade also is said to connect all its dancers with the originator of pointe technique, Marie Taglioni, with Bentley inviting the reader to “look inside any well-anointed pointe shoe and see the bleeding beauty that connects us all to her,” not interested in questioning why young women are pushed into pointe shoes at such an early age, much less asking whether dancers of all gender identities might be allowed on pointe. Perhaps most disturbing and in line with its status as a dance of initiation for young female virgins, Serenade is “a labyrinth that Balanchine has constructed to guide us, gently, but with no recourse but to proceed,” hardly sentiments that one would hope to hear articulated by any young person regarding their ballet teacher or any authority figure in 2022.

That the book’s contents passed muster with multiple editors and critical gatekeepers without any objections is regrettable but sadly not surprising, as there is no doubt a large and ample market for the kind of uncritical nostalgia. To that end, I can already hear the objections to some of these observations, likely some version of 1) “well if you had been there you would understand,” 2) “why do you think you know better than her?” or 3) “oh it’s just harmless connoisseurship dressed up in somewhat overdetermined prose, what’s the big deal.” 

But as Balanchine famously stated once to an eager mother, ballet is a moral endeavor, and the world depicted by Bentley is not the world that I would want any dancer to enter into or aspire to join. Throughout this book I frequently recalled the moment in the documentary Dancing for Mr. B when Darci Kistler catches herself almost mid-sentence in a moment of embarrassed self-awareness to note, “I feel like I’m talking about a religion.” If Balanchine is indeed a religion, Bentley’s book was written to be added to its sacred scriptures. It’s too bad that no one bothered to tell her that the equivalent of Martin Luther’s theses were posted on ballet’s door some time ago. One can only hope her book doesn’t do anything to stall the reformation, if not the revolution, that is well underway.

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