Miami City Ballet opened its 2023–24 season with “Fall Mix,” an energetic triptych of abstract American dance spanning almost nine decades, from the experimental 1930s to 2023. In this fortieth-anniversary year of George Balanchine’s death, each of Miami’s first three programs will include one selection from his oeuvre.
Serenade (1934), set to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s four-movement Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48, opened the program. The ballet was Balanchine’s first solo American project, and MCB offered a faithful treatment of the landmark production. In addition to launching Balanchine’s American career, the piece also launched his legacy to the heavens: the ballet and the blue hues of the set and Varvara Karinska’s original costumes—still in use today—inspired the naming of the Balanchine crater on Mercury. The cool hues are the only features of the set, befitting the performance’s plotlessness. The choreography was conceived as a range of sequences offering instructive exercises to multiple levels of students at Balanchine’s newly founded School of American Ballet. The first performance was by these students at the banker Felix Warburg’s New York estate in June 1934. The American Ballet, Balanchine’s first company in America (not to be confused with the extant American Ballet Theatre), offered the first professional performance in March 1935.
Despite Balanchine’s intent, Serenade took on faint features of a plot during its development. As in any educational environment, unexpected things happened. One dancer fell, another arrived late, and so on. Rather than rejecting these mishaps, Balanchine incorporated them into his scenarios, thus evoking a new enterprise’s haphazard beginnings. The choreographed falls look back to Adolphe Adam’s Giselle (1841) and may reflect elements of the khorumi, a dance from Balanchine’s native Georgia. Alas, American ballet audiences were still green, and Serenade was received poorly despite Tchaikovsky’s familiar score.
In MCB’s program, however, it was certainly the best received of the three pieces. The movements are deeply romantic and even at times nostalgic, culminating in a “transfiguration” of reality, as some critics have noted. The ensemble of twenty-six dancers was a joy to behold, and the Miami City Ballet Orchestra, led by Gary Sheldon, enjoyed its best and most elegant playing of the evening here.
The other two pieces came, perhaps unwisely, out of chronological order, with the world premiere of Jamar Roberts’s Sea Change appearing next. Behind the dancers, evocative projections of simulated waves by Camilla Tassi accompany John Adams’s undulating score. The ballet is intended to tell us that we are all “on a precipice” in a post-COVID world where water can serve as a metaphor for changing environments and a portent of disaster. Neither Roberts’s choreography nor Adams’s music really goes anywhere. The readier impression is that we are all trapped in an unchanging place, reverberating endlessly like the projection’s ocean waves in a finite space. Dressed in colorful costumes by Jermaine Terry, Ashley Knox and Stanislav Olshanskyi stood out in the fleeting solo parts, supported by ten other dancers. But if there is danger ahead, it was hard to see the how or why of it.
The final part of the program snapped back nearly forty years to Twyla Tharp’s now-classic In the Upper Room (1986), set to a nine-part minimalist score by Philip Glass. There is no hint of a story here. Tharp conceived pairs and groups of dancers in three disparate roles. The first duo is meant to evoke Chinese temple guard dogs, whose authority yields to what Tharp called a cadre of “bomb throwers” and “stompers,” each figure evoking these violent actions in dance. A vital feature of the production is that the dancers do not directly interact with each other, but rather rotate in and out of a background of fog in tandem with the music. The visual effect is intriguing, though Glass’s score, which relies heavily on repetition and, worse, those dreaded drum machines in vogue for a short time in the 1980s, left the effort sounding rather dated.