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.

Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern: A Short Biography and Syllabus

Upon the occasion of the newly-opened exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, below is a short introduction to his remarkable life and work, and a list of writings by and about him.

Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) possessed a seemingly unlimited reserve of energy and ideas, and the quantity of his many unrealized endeavors is as noteworthy as his successes. It was in this expansiveness of imagination and willingness to put his artistic convictions into action that his true genius lay, no matter the obstacles or potential for failure. He thrived when at his busiest and was constantly engaged in multiple projects, all the while dreaming up new ones for the future. It is difficult to say exactly whence this disposition arose. To some, it was in part a product of his family’s wealth and connections—the unfettered mindset of individuals with significant financial resources at their disposal. Others posit psychological origins, pointing to his history of manic episodes and bipolar tendencies, or argue that he was able to get by on very little sleep. Whatever the cause of his passion, Kirstein was one of the most active and generous advocates on behalf of modernist expression in the twentieth century, in virtually all of its generic manifestations.

Kirstein was born in Rochester, New York, and was raised among the wealthy elite of Boston. His mother, Rose Kirstein née Stein was from a prosperous Rochester family; his father Louis Kirstein was a successful businessman—most notably as a partner in the Filene department store company—and a dedicated philanthropist whose sense of noblesse oblige would greatly influence his son. His parents, as well as his sister Mina Curtiss and brother George Kirstein were generous supporters, financially and personally, of his many artistic and organizational endeavors throughout his life. Kirstein attended the Berkshire School in western Massachusetts, and subsequently enrolled at Harvard University, graduating in 1930.

Kirstein’s parents were relatively unobservant Jews, although active in Jewish political and philanthropic causes, and his religious upbringing was nominal. In high school he was introduced to the practices of the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff, who would prove a strong influence, especially in Kirstein’s early adulthood. In his later years he became interested in Roman Catholicism, although he never took any formal steps toward conversion. In 1941 Kirstein married Fidelma Cadmus, sister of his friend, the painter Paul Cadmus, and was a devoted husband until her death in 1991. He maintained numerous passionate relationships with men throughout his life, both sexual and nonsexual, but never explicitly identified himself as homosexual.

During Kirstein’s time at Harvard, his primary interests were literature and the visual arts. He wrote several books of poetry and an autobiographical novel, Flesh is Heir, published in 1932. Of more lasting significance than his own work was the literary quarterly Hound & Horn, which he co-founded in 1927 with Varian Fry and R. P. Blackmur. Modeled on T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion, the journal would in its seven years of existence publish original work by American modernist writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams and James Agee. Kirstein himself contributed two major articles on ballet, his earliest writings on dance.

During this same period, Kirstein and fellow students Edward M. M. Warburg and John Walker III, under the influence of Harvard professor Paul Sachs, organized the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. The Society mounted several shows of work by living artists, which met with indifferent to indignant reception among Boston’s conservative art patrons. Although short-lived, the Society provided the organisational nucleus of the institution that would become the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Although he never functioned in a leadership capacity, Kirstein would maintain close ties to MoMA. He was responsible for numerous exhibitions and the accompanying catalogues, including a 1932 exhibition of contemporary mural painting and a 1948 retrospective of Polish artist Elie Nadelman. He would continually advocate for the acquisition of more work by American artists and helped broker many relationships between the museum and artists whom he championed. In 1939 he donated his significant private collection of books, prints and dance memorabilia to the museum to establish the Dance Archives, the first such scholarly resource in the United States.

Kirstein had a long interest in ballet, particularly in the Ballets Russes and its founder and artistic director, Serge Diaghilev, on whom he modeled his own career as an impresario. He made yearly visits to Europe beginning in the 1920s and saw performances of Firebird and ballets by Léonide Massine and Balanchine. Through his friendship with Romola Nijinsky—for whom he served as ghost-writer for significant portions of her biography of her husband, Vaslav Nijinsky—Kirstein gained access to the circle of Russian émigré dancers and choreographers, including Balanchine. With Balanchine somewhat institutionally adrift since Diaghilev’s death in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, Kirstein found the choreographer receptive to the idea of coming to the United States to start a new company. Kirstein brought Balanchine to the United States in October 1933.

In the fifteen years following Balanchine’s arrival, the organization envisioned by Kirstein would assume many forms. Crucial to the enterprise in all of its incarnations, however, was the continuous presence of a training institution, the School of American Ballet (SAB), which opened its doors at a studio on Madison Avenue shortly after Balanchine’s arrival. Students from SAB first performed in June 1934 at a private performance at the estate of Felix Warburg in White Plains, New York—including the ballet Serenade, the first original work created by Balanchine in America. The company made its debut as the American Ballet in March 1935 at the Adelphi Theater on Broadway, garnering the notice of the new head of the Metropolitan Opera, Edward Johnson, who invited the group to become the Met’s resident ballet troupe. The arrangement would prove uncongenial and lasted only three years, but it did allow the fledgling organization to mount several significant performances: an all-Stravinsky program—conducted by the composer himself—that featured the American premiere of Balanchine’s Apollo­; and a dance-intensive staging of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice designed by the artist Pavel Tchelitchev, of whom Kirstein was a devoted patron. Kirstein articulated his frustrations with the Met, as well as his larger critique of the hegemony of Russian ballet in America, in his 1938 pamphlet Blast at Ballet.

Concurrent with the American Ballet, in 1936 Kirstein formed a second troupe called Ballet Caravan, conceived as a summer touring company (and confidently posited in Blast at Ballet as an antidote for the degenerate state of ballet in America). The Caravan allowed Kirstein to pursue more directly his vision of a company with a distinctly American profile, and afforded him an active, all-encompassing role as producer, allowing him to commission original music and designs from artists of his choosing. The dancers themselves created the choreography, in collaboration with a distinguished roster of American writers, composers, and artists, including Paul Cadmus, Ben Shahn, Aaron Copland, Paul Bowles, Florine Stettheimer and Virgil Thomson. Although the troupe did not survive the 1930s, the Caravan provided important exposure and choreographic experience for dancers such as Ruthanna Boris, Lew Christensen, William Dollar, and Eugene Loring. The Caravan was also notable for being less focused on classical ballet, and organisationally and aesthetically represented a rapprochement by Kirstein with the world of modern dance, towards which he was generally unsympathetic. True to its name, the Caravan was always somewhat makeshift in its organization and execution, and only two of its ballets—Billy the Kid and Filling Station, for which Kirstein himself wrote the scenario—garnered significant critical and popular acclaim.

In 1941 Kirstein and Balanchine formed the American Ballet Caravan, combining their two previous ventures for an extended tour of Latin America, funded by the State Department’s office of Inter-American Affairs, headed by Kirstein’s long-time friend and patron Nelson Rockefeller. The goal of the tour was to promote goodwill and counteract the region’s growing pro-Nazi sentiment. Kirstein returned to South America the following year, again at the request of Rockefeller. His official mission was to purchase new work by Latin American artists to augment the collections of the Museum of Modern Art—of which Rockefeller was President—but the real purpose was to gather off-the-record political intelligence.

Following a stint in the army, Kirstein’s next major undertaking was Ballet Society, created in 1946 and conceived as a non-profit membership-based subscription organization. As with Ballet Caravan, Kirstein held primary responsibility for both artistic and administrative planning and commissioned librettos, music, scenery and choreography from a wide range of artists, many of whom had been involved in his previous endeavours. Although Balanchine was not a central institutional force behind Ballet Society, he was a key collaborator for two of its most important works: The Four Temperaments, to a score by Paul Hindemith, commissioned personally by Balanchine several years earlier, and featuring elaborate costumes by Kurt Seligmann (subsequently abandoned in favour of simple practice clothes); and Orpheus, to a newly-commissioned score by Stravinsky, with designs by Isamu Noguchi (a frequent collaborator of Martha Graham) and starring Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clerq, Nicholas Magallanes and Francisco Moncion. Although its performances were critically acclaimed, Ballet Society was never self-supporting, despite its non-profit status and substantial personal contributions from Kirstein and other patrons. In 1948, however, when its demise seemed inevitable, the chair of the executive committee of New York City Center, Morton Baum, invited Ballet Society to become the resident ballet company of the city-operated venue. Thus the Kirstein and Balanchine enterprise finally achieved institutional permanence under the new identity of the New York City Ballet.

Although City Center provided the company with a more stable institutional base and covered day-to-day operating costs, there were few funds available for the creation of new work, and Kirstein continued to support new productions from his own funds and by soliciting donations from patrons. In 1952, Kirstein became Managing Director of City Center, and during his tenure secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support new opera and ballet productions. A committed leftist throughout his life, Kirstein was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement and participated in the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, later writing a poem about the experience. He helped numerous African-American dancers, especially men, gain admission to SAB in the 1940s and 1950s, and supported NYCB principal dancer Arthur Mitchell in founding the Dance Theater of Harlem.

As a member of the Lincoln Center planning committee Kirstein was instrumental in ensuring the company’s permanent home at the New York State Theater and SAB’s inclusion in the complex. In 1959 the Ford Foundation, at Kirstein’s urging, made a major grant to SAB that made possible national audition tours and an expanded scholarship program, effectively transforming the organisation into America’s leading training academy for ballet. This position was further strengthened in 1963 when Kirstein secured a second major commitment from Ford, a multi-million grant in support of a half dozen American ballet companies, the bulk of which went to support NYCB and SAB. Until his death, Kirstein served as the guiding institutional force of both organizations and of dance in the United States more broadly.

Alongside and frequently in tandem with his undertakings, Kirstein was a prolific writer, as notable for his many published books, articles, program notes and prefaces as for his prodigious personal correspondence and diaries. As a critic, historian and collector he played an essential role in the professionalization of the study of dance in the United States, not simply as an artistic practice but as a subject of intellectual study. As the founder of Dance Index, Kirstein oversaw the first scholarly journal in America devoted to dance. His work on Nijinsky helped to secure the dancer’s place in the history of ballet as more than an idiosyncratic performer and reasserted the place of male dancers in the history—and future—of ballet. His historical and critical writings are at once indispensible scholarly references and important primary sources in their own right, documenting the development of ballet and dance in the twentieth century. In addition to his donations to MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his personal papers and other collections constitute some of the most significant archival holdings of the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Selected Writings

Kirstein, Lincoln. (1983) Ballet: Bias & Belief—Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writings of Lincoln Kirstein, New York: Dance Horizons, Inc.

—. (1991) By With To & From: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, Ed. Nicholas Jenkins, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

—. (1935) Dance: A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Reprinted 1987, with an appreciation by Nancy Reynolds, New York: Dance Horizons, Inc.

—. (1994) Mosaic: Memoirs, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

—. (1970) Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet, New York: Praeger.

—. (1975) Nijinsky Dancing, New York: Knopf.

—. (2009) Program Notes, Ed. Randall Bourscheidt, New York: Eakins Press Foundation and Alliance for the Arts.

—. (1978) Thirty Years: the New York City Ballet, New York: Knopf.

References and Further Reading

Duberman, Martin. (2007) The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, New York: Knopf.

Garafola, Lynn, Ed., with Eric Foner. (1999) Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet, New York: Columbia University Press.

Garafola, Lynn. (2005) “Dollars for Dance: Lincoln Kirstein, City Center, and the Rockefeller Foundation” in Lynn Garafola (2005) Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 305–16.

Harris, Andrea. (2017) Making Ballet American: Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine, New York: Oxford University Press.

Kayafas, Peter, Ed. (2007) Lincoln Kirstein: A Bibliography of Published Writings, 1922–1996, New York: Eakins Press Foundation.

Reynolds, Nancy. (1999) “In His Image: Diaghilev and Lincoln Kirstein” in Lynn Garafola, Ed., with Nancy Van Norman Baer, The Ballets Russes and Its World, New Haven: Yale University Press.

—. (1977) Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet, New York: Dial Press.

Steichen, James. (2018) Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Nicholas Fox. (1992) Patron Saints: Five Rebels Who Opened America to a New Art, 1928–1943, New York: Knopf.