One of the most sublime ballets in the George Balanchine canon took the stage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night.
“Serenade,” a New York City Ballet staple, elevates the sculptural beauty of the body. It also reveals the body as the vessel for the spirit — that intangible thing that connects us to each other and to another dimension.
And while many would scientifically dispute a body is only a body, there is no argument Balanchine was aiming for an otherworldly experience in “Serenade.” He achieved it and more in a ballet that is considered one of his greatest.
Set to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” the ballet is deceptively simple. The corps de ballet, awash in a sea of blue tulle, stands with palms pressed to the sky. A flick of their feet, in unison, to first position, signals the start of the glorious work. It begins serene, with the mass of female dancers gathering and dispersing in lines and circles.
Then a waltz winds up, and the dancers, with Sara Mearns in the lead, glide along with an occasional princely twirl from Jonathan Stafford. Romance is in order as he trails behind Mearns, bending on his knee with the gracious offer of a hand.
The feel is radiant and joyous. And as the whole ensemble gathers onto the stage, there is a sense the ballet is coming to a close. But no, it proceeds to Mearns throwing herself on the floor, in distress. Her long hair flows forth, cascading around her.
This is when “Serenade” becomes more than a pretty dance. At that moment, the angel, in the form of the kindly and gallant Ash LaCour, approaches her. His eyes are shielded by Rebecca Krohn, whose arms double as his wings. He reaches for Mearns, and they engage in a dance where she surrenders to his every touch.
The ending, in which Mearns is raised to the rafters and falls into a slow back bend, is bittersweet exquisiteness.
Also exquisite is the excerpt from Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” with Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall. Set to a piano and violin piece by Arvo Part, this duet exalts the tender hand. These two are magical as Hall lifts Whelan again and again — one glorious climax after another.
Wednesday’s performance was especially moving as this was Hall’s first showing on stage since his winter injury. He looked fit and able in this seamless union of hearts.
The night also featured three other wonderful works: Justin Peck’s lively and unpredictable “Year of the Rabbit,” as well as two Balanchine/Tchaikovsky delights, “The Garland Dance” from “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Theme and Variation.”
“The Garland Dance,” which features many area children, is wonderful, as one can see the dance master’s talent for moving large number of dancers in ways that are endlessly fascinating.
Yet the challenging “Theme and Variation,” with excellent dancing from Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette, is the better. It places the audience at a palace ball where august elegance bows to an adoring crowd.