Richmond Ballet Celebrates 30 Years with Serenade, Fancy Free and The Rite of Spring
Full-length repertory program features innovative 20th century works
Richmond Ballet is pleased to announce the line-up for the 30th Anniversary Celebration performance, debuting at the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage, November 1-3, 2013. This special performance, celebrating the Ballet’s 30 years as a professional company will feature George Balanchine’s Serenade, the company premiere of Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free and Salvatore Aiello’s The Rite of Spring. Serenade, George Balanchine’s famous blue, neo-classical work – his first ballet to be choreographed in America – marked a turning point in the history of American ballet. Fancy Free, the inspiration for the film On The Town, signaled that Robbins was to be one of the most influential American choreographers of the 20th century. The Rite of Spring, the groundbreaking ballet set to the music by Igor Stravinsky, is now celebrating its centennial year, and returns to the Richmond Ballet repertory after a highly successful run at the Virginia Arts Festival in May of 2013.
Jerri Kumery, Richmond Ballet’s Ballet Master who also serves as a répétiteur for The Balanchine Trust and the curator of the works of Salvatore Aiello, is working with the company to set both Serenade and The Rite of Spring. Philip Neal, an alumnus of The School of Richmond Ballet who danced with New York City Ballet for over 20 years, returns to Richmond after the success of his new ballet for Studio One, Phoenix Rising, to set Fancy Free on behalf of The Robbins Rights Trust.
The full-length repertory program that will fill the Carpenter Theatre stage in early November will showcase the tremendous range of the Richmond Ballet dancers, as Serenade is steeped in the classical tradition of Balanchine’s Russian roots, Fancy Free is based in Robbins’s unique blend of ballet and Broadway and Aiello’s The Rite of Spring is primal and full of abandon. “We are incredibly fortunate to have dancers who are able and willing to accept this artistic challenge of versatility set forth by the artistic leadership of Artistic Director, Stoner Winslett,” says Ballet Master Jerri Kumery. “For an artist to be able to go from classical to theatre and then to combustible contemporary is a great rarity.”
Richmond Ballet is also pleased to announce that the Richmond Symphony will once again provide live accompaniment for all three of the Ballet’s 30th Anniversary performances. Featuring Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s lush and classical Serenade for Strings in C, Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy and high energy Fancy Free, composed for Robbins’s ballet in 1944, and Stravinsky’s revolutionary The Rite of Spring (1913), the music for the 30th Anniversary Celebration will be a powerful and important complement to the dancing on stage.
Serenade (Balanchine/Tchaikovsky, 1935)
From the serenity of its opening, a sea of 17 women dressed in ice-blue in the simplest of ballet positions, calm, elegant and clean, to the haunting procession that closes the famous oeuvre, Serenade is one of the most beautiful and well-known ballets of the 20th century. Along with other Balanchine favorites, Serenade creates the foundation of the Balanchine repertory. Though the ballet’s steps and music pay tribute to Balanchine’s Russian heritage – even in its sleek, modernistic styling, Serenade retains a certain elegance and courtliness that is firmly rooted in the traditions of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg where Balanchine received his training – Serenade’s demanding, often off-balance movements, devilishly fast footwork and powerful thematic yet story-less trajectory became hallmarks of Balanchine’s new language of American ballet. “In this simple early work, remarkably, Balanchine made a dance that would become the Rosetta Stone for a new kind of dancer, the American classical dancer,” writes Toni Bentley, a dancer with New York City Ballet for ten years, and now the author of multiple books, including one on Serenade. “He brought a kind of democracy into the hierarchical land of ballet classicism.” “Everything that is remarkable about Balanchine’s talent is represented in Serenade,” adds Philip Neal. “Musical acuity, phenomenal structure, and a breathtaking expression of humanity. It’s a testament to simplicity.”
Set to the full-bodied music of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Serenade is one of the many Balanchine ballets to draw from the composer’s vast catalogue of classical music. Tchaikovsky called Serenade for Strings in C his “favorite child”, written from “inner compulsion [and] from the heart.” Throughout his long and prolific career, Balanchine often spoke about his close relationship with the music of his fellow Russian, and such is the case in Balanchine’s creation of Serenade. “When I was doing Serenade,” Balanchine said, “Tchaikovsky encouraged me. Almost the whole Serenade is done with his help.”
Serenade holds a special significance for Richmond Ballet Artistic Director, Stoner Winslett. Though Richmond Ballet acquired Serenade in 1990, it has not been until this landmark, 30th anniversary year that Winslett is seeing her dreams for staging this iconic ballet realized. “Serenade is one of my all-time favorite ballets,” says Winslett. “I always told myself that when I had the opportunity to do this ballet the way it was meant to be done – on the large, glorious stage of the Carpenter Theatre together with the power of the Richmond Symphony that allows Tchaikovsky’s music to soar and to be as full as it was intended to be – I would do it.” Balanchine’s works have long formed a cornerstone of the Ballet’s thriving repertory, and Winslett and her artistic staff believe that Serenade is a fitting vehicle to demonstrate the incredible range and abilities of the professional company and Richmond Ballet II, along with the Ballet’s current roster of apprentices and trainees, all of whom will be called upon to flesh out Serenade’s cast.
Since its creation in 1934, generations of audiences around the world have been fascinated by the intent behind this evocative ballet – specifically as to whether or not the ballet tells a story. While Balanchine is famous for claiming that the ballet was nothing more than a way to teach his students to dance properly on stage, (the original version was performed by students at the School of American Ballet in 1934), or that the ballet was simply a dance in the moonlight, many continue to believe that the choreographer’s decision to reverse the final movements of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C and to end the ballet on a note of sadness proves otherwise. No matter intent behind the ballet’s creation, it remains evident that, even nearly 80 years after its premiere, Serenade continues to evoke powerful, emotional, near-religious experiences from its viewers. “It has themes: blindness and seeing, love and fate, death and submission,” writes dance historian Jennifer Homans in Apollo’s Angels. “It has the arc of a lifetime: from innocence to experience, from the first simple positions of ballet to the final ritual procession into a distant unknown. There is a tragedy woven through – not the cathartic tragedy of antiquity but a more melancholy and romantic evocation of loves that cannot last, deaths that must come.”
Fancy Free (Robbins/Bernstein, 1944)
Also on the program is the work of another great American choreographer: Fancy Free, by Jerome Robbins. Fancy Free marks the Richmond Ballet premiere of any Robbins work, and the company is pleased to welcome back Philip Neal, who will return to Richmond to set this iconic work on behalf of The Robbins Rights Trust. During his 23-year career at New York City Ballet, Neal worked closely with Robbins himself, and when Neal returns to the River City on October 16, he is looking forward to continuing his work with the Richmond Ballet dancers. “Having worked with the Richmond Ballet dancers consistently over the past three seasons, I am very invested in their progress,” says Philip Neal. “With Fancy Free, I have an opportunity to share my extensive experience with Jerome Robbins with Richmond Ballet as it performs his landmark work for the first time. At New York City Ballet, I rehearsed two different roles in Fancy Free under the incomparable direction of its ingenious choreographer. I can demonstrate to the Richmond Ballet dancers the choreography exactly as it was presented to me by Mr. Robbins.”
Fancy Free was the first collaboration of many between Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, the legendary American composer and conductor whose name became synonymous with the New York Philharmonic and the big, Broadway jazz sound of the American musical. Originally set for Ballet Theatre (later to become American Ballet Theatre), Fancy Free tells the lively story of three sailors on shore-leave during wartime New York City. Famous for its jazzy, high-energy and humorous choreography, Fancy Free became an instant hit after its premiere in 1944, and it helped to establish Robbins as a powerful force in the American dance world.
Although often compared with Balanchine, Robbins’s work remains distinct from the Russian master. Robbins drew from an American vernacular, and he had a particular talent for infusing his ballets with elements of charisma that made his work instantly relatable to audiences first across America and then the world over. At the foundation of much of Robbins’ work was character: “The idea that dancers, even when they are doing difficult steps should look like real people was important to him,” writes Deborah Jowitt, author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. Indeed, the genius of Robbins’s talent was that he was often able to conceal the difficulty of his choreography with a certain casual cool, and such talent is on display in Fancy Free, as the sailor’s jumps and turns seem to explode from little preparation. “While creating Fancy Free, Robbins was under the influence of the Actor’s Studio in New York City,” says Neal. “Character development is of paramount importance in bringing the dance to life. Robbins had a ‘back story’ for every dancer’s role. One sailor has a tremendous amount of bluster, another is a shy but charming mid-western youth, and the cast is rounded out by a smooth talking, suave ladies-man.”
“Fancy Free has remarkably broad appeal, to both newcomers to the ballet, and to seasoned theater attendees,” Neal adds. “It was Robbins’s first ballet, a remarkable blend of various dance techniques and musical theatre stylings.”
The Rite of Spring (Aiello/Stravinsky, 1993)
To close the 30th Anniversary program, Richmond Ballet is staging Salvatore Aiello’s primal and emotional The Rite of Spring for the first time in Richmond. Met with much success when the company danced Aiello’s 1993 work at the Virginia Arts Festival in May of 2013, Richmond Ballet is honored to include a ballet of both with tremendous historical significance as well as personal significance to one of the Ballet’s own as part of the 30th Anniversary Celebration.
Richmond Ballet Ballet Master Jerri Kumery worked closely with Salvatore Aiello on the creation of his The Rite of Spring while both were at North Carolina Dance Theatre in the early 1990s. Kumery also became the curator of Aiello’s choreographic repertory after his death in 1995. “Jerri Kumery is so close to the work, and really truly its keeper,” says Winslett. “With all her hard work, the hard work of the dancers, along with the fact that this ballet has already seen great success in Norfolk, we really wanted to share The Rite of Spring with our Richmond audiences, for this special celebration.”
Aiello’s version of the The Rite of Spring draws much of its inspiration from the music of the same name, the famous pounding score composed by Stravinsky in 1913, as well as from Vaslav Nijinsky’s original iteration of the groundbreaking ballet. When Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring – know as Le Sacre du Printemps – premiered in Paris in 1913, audiences were left in shock, as the unconventional choreography, difficult subject matter and avant garde sets and costumes were a tremendous departure from the established traditions of classical ballet. However, the alluring Russian had created a ballet that would change dance and art forever. “[Le Sacre du Printemps] was both difficult and genuinely new,” writes Homans. “Nijinsky had thrown the full weight of his [incomparable] talent into breaking with the past, and the feverishness with which he (like Stravinsky) worked was an indication of his fierce ambition to invent a whole new dance language…it made Sacre the first truly modern ballet.”
“The Rite of Spring is probably the most sensational piece of music ever written by Stravinsky…the power of the music, the power of the orchestration, [and] the complexity of the music is really phenomenal. It’s very powerful, it’s very intricate,” Salvatore Aiello told WTVI PBS Charlotte in 1993, and it is from the powerful score that Aiello developed his undulating and challenging choreography. Aiello’s The Rite of Spring also draws heavily from ancient pagan culture, adding that “its basic concept is about ritual, is about the Earth, preparing the soil, about the primitive rituals of a very basic, simple people. It’s about a sacrifice, a woman gives her life.”
“The Rite of Spring is a raw, disturbing and strangely exhilarating work,” noted Dean Smith, writing for The Charlotte Observer in 2003. “From the bare, savage costumes and stark lighting to the contorted, earthbound choreography and frightening music, this dance sends a shock through one’s senses.”
Kumery has been working with the Richmond Ballet dancers since the 2012-13 season to prepare Aiello’s masterpiece, and visits to Kumery’s regular rehearsals show that the company dancers, led by Lauren Fagone in the role of The Chosen One and Fernando Sabino in the role of The Warrior, have fully embraced the abandon and brutal energy needed to capture the ballet’s primal and frightening essence.
Performances for the 30th Anniversary Celebration:
All performances take place at the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage, 600 E. Grace Street, Richmond VA, 23219
Friday, November 1, 7:00pm
Saturday, November 2, 7:00pm
Sunday, November 3, 2:00pm
Richmond Ballet’s 30th Anniversary Celebration performance is generously sponsored by Altria Group, Delta Air Lines, Hunton & Williams LLP, West Broad Audi and The Whitfield Foundation.
Live orchestral accompaniment is funded in part by a generous grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.
Performances of The Rite of Spring are made possible by support from John A. Cable Foundation and Wilbur Moreland Havens Charitable Foundation.
Fancy Free is supported by a gift from The Jerome Robbins Foundation
 Toni Bentley. “The Ballet That Changed Everything”. The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 3. 2010.
 Toni Bentley. “The Ballet That Changed Everything”. The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 3. 2010.
 Jennifer Homans. Apollo’s Angels. A History of Ballet. Random House. 2010. 519.
 Jennifer Homans. Apollo’s Angels. A History of Ballet. Random House. 2010. 517.
 Pia Cotton. “Dancing America”. Humanities. The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Jan/Feb. 2009.
 Jennifer Homans. Apollo’s Angels. A History of Ballet. Random House. 2010. 312.