Festival students perform Balanchine’s Serenade tonight in the Amphitheater

Lucas Bilbro and Isabella LaFreniere will perform Balanchine’s “Serenade,” danced to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48, with the Music School Festival Orchestra tonight in the Amphitheater. Photo by Adam Birkan.


Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer

Together, festival students from the School of Music and the School of Dance will “Serenade” audiences at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.

Dancers will perform George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” restaged by répétiteur Patricia McBride, North Carolina Dance Theatre associate artistic director.

Musicians will accompany the ballet with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, lead by guest conductor Stilian Kirov.

Kirov, who was the 2010 David Effron Conducting Fellow, said the opportunity for young artists to “merge into different universes” is what makes Chautauqua’s summer study programs stand out.

Another thing that makes the dance program at Chautauqua stand out is McBride, NCDT Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux said.

She worked with Balanchine for 30 years, so the students are learning from someone who can tell them exactly how Balanchine would want it, he said.

“She’s really caring and patient, and really has a lot of affection for those kids,” he said.

Although the ballet premiered by the American Ballet in 1935, it is still significant today, McBride said.

“It’s still current, it’s still a challenge for the dancers today,” she said.

“Serenade,” a piece Balanchine created for students of the American Ballet, begins subtly, with measured, delicate movements, McBride said.

“The audience just gasps. There are a lot of images that you don’t forget,” she said.

The movements are minimal but still require a lot of skill on the dancers’ part, Bonnefoux said. The quality of the simple, deliberate movements needs to be just right, and the musicality must be spot on.

“I really think that’s why Balanchine did that as his first work on students in America,” he said, “because he wanted them to move differently.”

When he created the piece in the 1930s, dancers were not as musical or accustomed to moving at the speed the piece required, Bonnefoux said.

“At that time, people did not move that way at all,” he said.

One of Balanchine’s greatest legacies is an organic connection between dance and music, Bonnefoux said.

“He influenced choreographers, he influenced dancers, he influenced the future of dance,” he said.

Tchaikovsky also had an inherent connection between music and dance, Kirov said.

“I believe that the ballet — the dance — was in Tchaikovsky’s blood,” he said.

The gracious and delicate serenade is one of Tchaikovsky’s great masterpieces, he said.

In addition to dancing ballets from masters such as Balanchine, the students also get to dance pieces choreographed on them, Bonnefoux said.

Chautauqua Dance Associate Artistic Director Mark Diamond’s “Foresight” is danced to the first and third movements of Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1.

The contemporary piece is a loose interpretation of the Iliad from the viewpoint of Cassandra, a princess given the gift of prophecy by an infatuated Apollo, Diamond said. When Cassandra rejected Apollo, he cursed her so no one would believe her prophecies.

Kirov said the music makes him think of a time when people believed in magic.

“It’s very repetitive — of course it’s a minimalistic work — but it has this kind of mystic flavor,” he said.

It has a drive that’s very exciting, Kirov said, and a strong, repetitious pulse.

“It’s plethora of emotions,” he said. “I believe that having the dancers added to that, it really is the perfect cocktail.”

Michael Vernon’s “Memories” is reminiscent of Russian ballets.

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 inspired the short, but intricate ballet, Vernon said.

The music is very connected with images, Kirov said. When he listens to march-like music, he sees winter.

“I just imagine these little footprints in the snow,” he said. “Then the woodwinds come in, and it’s like the wind.”

“Concerto Grosso,” is NCDT dancer David Morse’s first ballet to be performed in Chautauqua.

Roderick Cox, the 2012 David Effron Conducting Fellow, will lead the MSFO during the piece.

This is Cox’s first time conducting for a live dance performance, but it is something he has always been interested in.

“I think it’s great when artists from different areas can cross boundaries and lines and work together,” he said.

The ballet reflects the music of the same name by Ernest Bloch.

The title “Concerto Grosso” is typical of baroque and classical eras of music, Cox said, though Bloch actually wrote the piece in the 1900s.

Bloch created the music in 1925 in response to his students harassing him. They didn’t think it was possible to create something exciting and interesting using old-fashioned composition methods, Morse said.

“He was writing this piece of music to prove them wrong,” he said.

Morse wanted to do the same with his ballet.

“You can still use old-fashioned compositional methods to make something exciting,” he said.

The main challenge of conducting a performance with live dancers is tempo, Cox said. The dancers have been rehearsing at a certain tempo, so the ballet is in their muscle memory that way.

“It’s important that I have the tempo locked down,” he said.  “If it’s too fast or too slow I risk the chance of hurting someone, and I definitely don’t want to do that.”

Kirov said the conductor’s job is to make the music comfortable for the dancers. That means making sure the tempi and dynamics are accurate.

“You want the tempi to be very comfortable for the dancers so that they can make their art,” Kirov said.

The musicians’ challenges are the same as the conductor’s, Kirov said.

“I think the main challenge is not to watch the dancers, because they’re so beautiful,” he said.

Kirov and Cox both said they have full confidence in the Music School Festival Orchestra.

“I don’t consider them students, I consider them colleagues and professionals, because they are performing at a really, really high musical level,” Kirov said.

Dance students are also working very hard, said Bonnefoux, balancing three technique classes per day with rigorous rehearsal schedules.

“The more you challenge and give them, the more they give you,” he said.