Carol Shults on Balanchine

I asked my good friend Carol Shults to write about Balanchine and the three ballets that Ballet West will present later this week when we open “Balanchine’s America”.  Once again Carol has written a superb article for dance lovers.  Enjoy!

Carol Shults

Serenade, Agon and Stars and Stripes

Dear Mark,

What a wonderful program Ballet West has coming up in April. These three Balanchine ballets show the great choreographer in three completely different moods and together will make a wonderfully satisfying evening.


Mark, did you know Serenade is my desert island ballet? I’m certainly far from unique in this; the ballet has been beloved for generations, and is performed all over the world. The first ballet created by Balanchine in America, it was created for a student performance of the brand new School of American Ballet in June 1934, but unlike most other Balanchine ballets, it took many years to become the work we love today. That has to do partly with costuming – It’s just impossible now to imagine it on stage without the diaphanous, long blue costumes – but they were only created by the great Karinska in 1947. The previous productions had short skirts for the women! The relatively few number of men is a reflection of conditions in 1934 – male students were few and their attendance at rehearsals sporadic! There are famously iconic moments in the ballet that are the result of accidents during the creative process: the fall of one girl (who originally also began to cry), the late arrival of another.

Megan Furse with Artists of Ballet West

When I mentioned how long it took for Serenade to achieve its completed form, which seems so inevitable to us today, I was thinking largely of the very audacious rearranging of Tchaikovsky’s original score that Balanchine hit upon in the end. There is very little written about this, I find, and he didn’t speak of it, except to imply that it is what it is! This consists of the reversal of the third and fourth movements of the Serenade in C for Strings. In 1934 the ballet consisted of the first, second and fourth movements. Only in 1940 when he staged it for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, did he add the third, the “Elegy.” When you hear the music in its concert or recorded form, you are not hearing the ballet! From my point of view, Balanchine’s rearranging of the score is definitive. The profoundly moving quality of the ballet was brought home to me in early October 2001, when it happened to be the first ballet on the program of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s fall season.

*Note for your audience: New York City Ballet’s orchestra has recorded the music as it exists for the ballet: “A Balanchine Album,” conducted by Robert Irving. In addition to Serenade it includes Agon, The Four Temperaments and Emeralds.


Agon means contest or struggle in Greek. Created for New York City Ballet by Balanchine in 1957 to a specially commissioned score by Igor Stravinsky, the ballet takes us to a different universe from that of Serenade. Instead of the lush melodies of Tchaikovsky we have the complex rhythms of Stravinsky, who loved creating this work with rigorously precise timing and unusual instrumentation in close collaboration with the choreographer.

Many people see in this ballet a response to the speed of life in the great urban metropolis. In creating the ground-breaking pas de deux in Agon, Balanchine was stretching the dance capabilities of two unique artists: Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell. The result, a modernist masterpiece, is stark and spare, but also erotic and witty! Lincoln Kirstein, the monumentally important figure in 20th century ballet, who was responsible for bringing Balanchine to America in the first place, wrote: “the innovation of Agon lay in its naked strength, bare authority, and self-discipline in constructs of stressed extreme movement….It was an existential metaphor for tension and anxiety…”

Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell

Christiana Bennett and Beau Pearson

*Audience note: I would suggest taking a look at some of the following to get a feel for the artistic ambience of Agon’s mid-century period: Architecture – Philip Johnson, Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier; Painting – Pollock, Picasso, de Kooning, Kline; Film – Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

Stars and Stripes

Just a couple of months after the premiere of Agon, Balanchine shifted gears completely, and with his usual ease made the wonderfully engaging ballet Stars and Stripes (January, 1958). Always aware of the audience’s need for a “balanced diet”, and with absolutely no apologies ever for being “entertaining,” he set about making a ballet to the marches of John Philip Sousa, in an arrangement done especially for him by Hershy Kay. He had always loved this familiar music, considering it essentially French in derivation, and imminently danceable. Inspired by his gloriously American lead male dancer, the tall, athletic, and quite young Jacques d’Amboise, he created a virtuosic showcase for the whole company – a great “closer!”

Jacques d'Amboise
Annie Breneman and Christopher Ruud

*Audience note – A fairly recent film, the documentary, “Every Little Step”, features d’Amboise’s daughter, Charlotte, a star dancer on Broadway. It has a charming scene with Jacques speaking of aspects of his career with Balanchine. There is also an excellent DVD available with fascinating footage of some of his most vivid roles: “Jacques d’Amboise, Portrait of a Great American Dancer.”

Mark, this program does it all: It gives your dancers tremendous technical and artistic challenges, at the same time as affording audiences the opportunity to engage with one of the greatest creative artists of any time. I wish I could be there. Best wishes to you all. Carol

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