On March 14, 1934, in New York City, George Balanchine began working on a new dance set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Op. 48. He had arrived in the United States from his native Russia via Europe some five months earlier, and had just taught a morning dance class at the School of American Ballet on the fourth floor of the Tuxedo Building at 59th Street and Madison Avenue. He and Lincoln Kirstein had founded the school that January, and they had a small following of students. Everything was new: Balanchine barely spoke English, barely knew Kirstein, and barely knew his American dancers. Serenade would be his first American ballet. As the class ended, one dancer later recalled, Balanchine climbed onto the “watching bench”—a stool that allowed him a vantage point over the dancers—and stretched his arms invitingly toward them with open palms. He quietly dismissed the men and asked the women to take a break and return in fifteen minutes ready to work.
When they were all gathered, Balanchine nodded to the pianist, his fellow Russian émigré Ariadna Mikeshna, and turned to the sweaty young women in leotards, tights, and practice skirts leaning nervously on the barres. They were teenagers at the peak of health; he was thirty, fighting tuberculosis, and had recently lost the use of one lung, the consequence of living through the brutalities of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian civil wars during his youth. He graciously approached each dancer, took her by the arm, and escorted her to a spot on the floor. There happened to be seventeen women in class that day, so he made a pattern in the large studio for seventeen: two perfect diamonds of eight, with a single dancer at the point joining the two formations. From the front, every dancer could be seen—like an orange grove in California, he later liked to say.
As they stood in their places, he started to talk. In pidgin English, he told them something of his Russian past. He was a ten-year-old student at the Imperial Theater School when World War I began, and only thirteen when the revolution erupted in 1917. He left for Europe in 1924. A decade later in New York, the memories still haunted him: gunfire in the streets, scavenging for food, killing and eating cats, and freezing in subzero temperatures, not to mention the dead bodies piled in the streets as the war and revolution took their toll. He told his students about the small dance company he had started in the midst of it all, and about leaving for Berlin and Paris and working with Sergei Diaghilev. He talked anxiously about Germany and Hitler, much on everybody’s mind in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.