The opening of George Balanchines Serenade finds 17 women standing on stage drenched in blue romantic tutus. Feet together, in unison they raise their right arms in port de bras and look toward their hands.
Ballet Idahos company of women rehearsed the iconic beginning to one of this great masters most significant works in Ballet Idahos rehearsal studio two weeks ago in preparation for the companys fifth season opener this weekend.
The petite and lithe woman at the front of the room, Jillana, who goes by only her first name, represents the Balanchine Trust. Shes the real deal, a ballerina who danced for Balanchine and became a star in the 1950s and 60s. She came to Boise to set this ballet and share stories from her 20 years with the company.
Jillana watched the run-through from a stool, coaching style and technique. At one point, she quietly slid from her perch to adjust Megan Hearns head just a touch.
The head is here, she said gently, then smiled. Thats it.
In her career, Jillana danced every role in Serenade as well as other great Balanchine works, including the Siren in Prodigal Son with Edward Villella. Balanchine even created his ballet Liebeslieder Walzer for her.
Now, she passes on that connection with the trust, an organization that preserves Balanchines legacy by staging his work. This was her first time working with Ballet Idaho.
This company is wonderful, she said. Im so glad they learn so quickly. Theyre very talented, every single one of them.
Its such an honor to work with her and to be in this ballet, said dancer James Brougham, who first learned this piece as a student at San Francisco Ballet.
Ballet Idaho artistic director Peter Anastos plans for this to be the first of many Balanchine ballets his company will incorporate into its repertoire.
As an American ballet company, we have a responsibility to do the great works of Balanchine, Anastos said. We used to say in New York that if you didnt like Balanchine, you didnt like ballet. The Intermountain West doesnt really know Balanchine and were going to do more.
Learning from someone like Jillana is a wonderful opportunity for the company, Anastos said.
Jillana was the youngest dancer hired by Balanchine for his New York City Ballet. She joined the company at 12 and was promoted to principal seven years later. She never completed school.
The truant officer never caught up with me, she said with a laugh. All Ive ever done is ballet. Thats all Ive ever known.
Jillana brought with her a wealth of stories about how Balanchine worked and created this ballet.
He was a genius, she said. Mr. Balanchine always knew what he wanted, there was no doubt. Even though he was not technically a good ballet dancer, he could demonstrate everything perfectly.
Georgian born, Balanchine made his name as a choreographer with Sergei Diaghilevs Ballets Russes, still regarded as the greatest ballet company of the 20th century. When Diaghilev died in 1929, the company collapsed but was resurrected in 1932 by Wassily de Basil and Rene Blum as Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.
Balanchine became the artistic director until he was ousted by Leonide Massine a year later. Thats when he came to America.
In 1934, he created Serenade as an exercise in stage technique for his School of American Ballet students at the private estate of banker Felix Warburg.
It was his first original ballet in this country and is seen as the beginning of American ballet. It became a signature work for NYCB as he reworked it into the masterpiece it is today.
This ballet is where he began creating his signature style that streamlined technique to serve his purpose to elevate the body above all other theatrical elements.
The Balanchine technique isnt that much different than other techniques, but it helps you work much quicker, she said.
He turned to one of his favorite composers for his music, Tchaikovskys Serenade for Strings in C.
As he created the piece, he turned the setting and the dancers into the medium for creating choreography.
You see, the theater was outside, and when Mr. B arrived, the girls were shading their eyes from the sun, Jillana said. So, he made that the first movement.
The first day only 17 of the dancers showed up, so there are 17 in the first movement. When one student fell accidentally, he worked that into the choreography. Another day, a student arrived late, and this too became part of the ballet, and so on.
Balanchine synthesized elements from the history of dance into 32 minutes. He references the great story ballets that came before him: Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.
Some of the poses are from statues he had seen in his travels, Jillana said. He was inspired by everything.
© 2012 Idaho Statesman