Entertainment

As the Carolina Ballet turns 20, it goes back to where it all began with 'Serenade'

For the Carolina Ballet's 20th anniversary, the company will revisit a production from its beginnings — the late, great George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” a testament to women’s power, energy and grace.
For the Carolina Ballet's 20th anniversary, the company will revisit a production from its beginnings — the late, great George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” a testament to women’s power, energy and grace. Geoff Wood Photography

For the Carolina Ballet's 20th anniversary, the company will revisit a production from its beginnings — the late, great George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” a testament to women’s power, energy and grace.

Known as a ballerina’s ballet, the piece has enthralled the dance world ever since it premiered decades ago. The Carolina Ballet last performed it during its inaugural season, and now comes a rare chance to see it again.

“It’s such a special ballet,” company soloist Lindsay Purrington said in a telephone interview between rehearsals. “It’s every female dancer’s dream to dance it. It just has this beautiful melancholy to it that anyone can relate to. It’s put together so well. It’s wholly satisfying to watch and dance.”

Purrington will play the role of the Dark Angel, one of three female leads. She described Balanchine’s ballet as "lush and sweeping," calling the act of performing it a "sacred experience."

“It’s extremely spiritual," she said.

Set to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C Major,” the ballet was created when Balanchine was only 30 years old, the first ballet he did after he came to America as a Russia émigré. The ballet premiered in 1934, danced by students from the new School of the American Ballet in New York City, which Balanchine co-founded. These students were hardly accomplished dancers, and it’s been said Balanchine incorporated into the ballet the students’ difficulties, from being late to class to one girl’s slipping and falling.

“I didn’t have it in mind to make anything,” Balanchine is reported to have said. “I made 'Serenade' to show dancers how to be on stage.”

His dance has been described by the great master himself as a simple one for women on a moonlit night. It’s often said it’s a ballet of mood, a romantic piece marked by beauty and loss.

In its opening moments, a corps of 17 dancers appears on stage, all of them women and standing breathlessly still with their right hands raised to the light and all dressed in baby-blue, long tulle skirts.

“When the curtain rises, it’s so arresting,” Purrington said. “He really hit a nerve when he choreographed the first few minutes of the ballet. It speaks to women.”

Despite being surrounded by other dancers, and despite having danced in the corps before, Purrington said, “Each girl stands there alone.”

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From left, Alicia Fabry, Lindsay Purrington and Lilyan Vigo Ellis rehearse "Carmen" at the Carolina Ballet Studio on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Principal dancer Lara O’Brien is dancing another lead part, the Waltz Girl.

“I have never danced Serenade before,” she said in a break from rehearsals. “So this will be a first for me. It’s kind of a bucket list role for me. It’s just a luxurious ballet. You just move so big and full.

"It’s almost like a prayer," she adds.

But she acknowledges she didn't realize how exhausting it is to dance the role.

"It takes a lot of stamina," she said. "Like all great ballet roles there’s a substance and a stamina to it."

Then there's the matter of taking down her hair in the middle of the show. For about two-thirds of the ballet, O’Brien will have her hair up in a bun as she turns and jumps. After that, her hair must be unleashed.

“I think it’s going to be a little nerve-racking," she said. "It has to come down in two to three seconds, so it’s going to involve some strategy.”

Ballet masters Debra Austin and Melissa Podcasy are helping coach the two ballerinas, who are each performing in different casts at a different time.

“Coaching is very personal,” said Austin, who is working with Purrington. “You try to make them look the best they can within the realm of the choreography.”

Austin used to dance with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, beginning when she was 16 years old, she said. She describes Balanchine, the choreographer, as a "genius."

“Choreography poured out of him," Austin said. "He never got stuck.”

Podcasy, married to the Carolina Ballet's artistic director Robert Weiss, danced formerly with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has performed the role of the Waltz Girl before.

“It’s a quite difficult part," she said about assisting O’Brien.

Ballets can only be taught from person to person.

“That how we pass ballets down," she said.

As the performance date approaches, Purrington said they're working to make everything seamless.

For Purrington, this is one of the last performances of her career. She said she will retire at the end of the season after dancing professionally for 20 years, many with the Carolina Ballet. Her penultimate dance in her long career then will be this beautiful Balanchine ballet.

It is one about lyrical endurance, where ballerinas sweep through space and conquer air, find freedom and abandon in established form and offer a woman’s approach to the world.

“It’s so special to perform something like this the year you retire,” Purrington said. “It’s just everything.”

Details

What: Carolina Ballet’s “Serenade”

When: 8 p.m. April 26-28; 2 p.m. April 28-29

Where: Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

Tickets: $32 and up

Info: carolinaballet.com

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