Serenade is Toni Bentley’s intelligent, expansive, and beautiful exploration of George Balanchine’s signature ballet.
FF2 Guest Post by Martha Anne Toll
I have been a balletomane since childhood and have read what I can on the subject. My debut novel, Three Muses, forthcoming in September, features a prima ballerina, Katya, as a main character. So, it may sound ironic that I declined to read books about ballerinas while I was in full-on writing mode for Three Muses. My forbearance was designed to keep mental real estate free and to stay open to what Katya wanted to tell me about herself. However, after Three Muses found its home with Regal House Publishing, I eagerly returned to ballet reading.
I was delighted to find Toni Bentley’s first book, Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal, which chronicles a season dancing with the New York City Ballet toward the end of George Balanchine’s tenure. Toni performed with his last class of dancers before she was forced into early retirement due to a hip injury. Winter Season is a daily diary of her life in the NYCB company, and remains as fresh today as when it was first published in 1982.
Toni may have been born a dancer, but she is also a born writer. The author of five previous books, her work has also appeared in Best American Essays, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Now comes Serenade, her intelligent, expansive, and beautiful exploration of this signature ballet. I had the pleasure of interviewing Toni for Pointe Magazine, which led, in turn, to this current review.
George Balanchine worked on Serenade almost his whole choregraphing life. Set to stunning music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the ballet opens with a panoply of women in diagonal rows, usually dressed in light blue, right arms outstretched, palms facing skyward, feet in parallel (an atypical ballet position).
Toni narrates from what was her position on stage as one of the dreamy women dressed in blue. Throughout the book, she provides minute-by-minute action on stage, with an unstinting account of the difficulty of this work, including keeping the delicate precision of the ensemble intact.
“…performance is only the tip of the ballet iceberg…”
But, as Toni aptly shows, performance is only the tip of the ballet iceberg. A ballet is made up of music and costumes and choreography and lighting and years and years of training. For lovers of ballet, this book lifts the curtain on these multiple aspects of Serenade. For those who are unfamiliar with ballet, the thrill of Serenade is the way it unfurls each aspect of creating a complex work of art, in which dozens of people bring their expertise to bear. Ballet is nothing if not highly sophisticated artistic collaboration.
Most poignant were Toni’s personal encounters with George Balanchine (including on his death bed). In many respects, he embodied 20th century ballet. He was its creator through his impeccable training of generations of students, and its innovator with his legacy of over 450 ballets (most of them shorter than full length, and “plotless”).
George Balanchine distilled ballet to its essence and was able to transmit that essence to his protégés. If he still has a magical, almost godlike reputation, it is deserved.
“Toni takes us deep into George Balanchine’s personal history, and his spiritual connection with Tchaikovsky.”
For non-ballet dancers – of whom I am one – Toni’s ability to convey what it was like to work with him is part of the joy of reading Serenade. She takes us deep into his personal history, and his spiritual connection with Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky died before Balanchine was born, but no matter; Balanchine fostered a lifelong otherworldly communication with him.
A writer of exquisite sensitivity and talent, Toni’s latest contribution gives breadth and depth to Serenade as a ballet of great significance.
© Martha Anne Toll (9/19/22) – Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/ DO MORE
Read Martha’s interview with Toni on the Pointe Magazine site.
Note that “en pointe” is a French term. In ballet, dancers moving gracefully on the tips of their toes are en pointe. Though the dictionary defines en pointe as a ballet term, you may hear something that sounds a bit like it outside the dance floor.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo and Toni Bentley headshot (© Clayton Cubitt) provided by Martha Anne Toll & used with permission. All Rights Reserved by Ms Bentley & Mr Cubitt.
Martha Anne Toll is a Washington, DC-based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing on September 20, 2022. Reach out to Martha at www.marthaannetoll.com, or on Twitter @marthaannetoll and Instagram @marthatoll.