Giants Before Us

Giants 3, masterpieces 1

Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Giants" program promises big things. Only Balanchine's "Serenade" fully delivers.

What makes a ballet a masterpiece?

George Balanchine’s Serenade, the first work on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s  “Giants” program, which I saw at the Keller auditorium on Saturday night, set me thinking about that. Because, in my view, it is the only masterpiece on a program that also included William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and the premiere of OBT resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s Giants Before Us.

Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for String Orchestra, premiered in 1935, following a preview on the Warburg estate in 1934, and was the first ballet Balanchine made on American dancers.  It is at once a  tribute  to his own training in pre-revolutionary Russia at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, and the cornerstone  of the new American classicism that Lincoln Kirstein charged him with developing.

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, Jacquelin Straughan in "Serenade." Photo: Yi Yin

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, Jacquelin Straughan in “Serenade.” Photo: Yi Yin

Balanchine liked to use cooking as a metaphor when speaking about his work.  The version of Serenade that OBT’s dancers are performing—and damned well—was slow-cooked for three decades, the fourth movement of the score inserted in 1941, the lovely, flowing costumes replacing unbecoming tunics in 1950, the master chef adding ingredients and correcting the seasoning, if you will, until the mid-’60s. Balanchine changed his ballets all the time, of course, adjusting steps to suit the dancers who performed them over the years, or, more often, to challenge them to jump higher, spin faster, travel farther.

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