NYCB's Sterling Hyltin on Dancing the Waltz Girl in Serenade, Balanchine's Beloved Masterpiece
I just can’t help feeling joy when I dance the Waltz Girl. Afterwards, I feel so at peace and nourished as a ballerina.
I love to scuba dive, and Serenade reminds me of a reef, with schools of fish in all these different groupings, and singular entities darting in and out. Everything is blue, and the sweeping, wavelike movements take me to this happy place of doing something else that I love.
Balanchine didn’t give it a story, but there’s sort of a skeleton, a whisper of something being there—it’s the story that you make it. Technically and emotionally, Serenade feels spiritual. I think that the Waltz Girl’s first partner was perhaps a great love in her life, and in the “Elegy” she realizes he’s gone and not coming back—the Dark Angel boy represents the spirit of the Waltz Boy.
The hardest part is the entrance when I come in late, looking for my spot amongst the girls. If I don’t feel I’ve set the mood right, if I feel rushed getting to my place, I feel a little disappointed and internally distracted for the rest of the ballet. I really need to believe myself, so I practice and visualize that moment. I find it’s more effective to run in two seconds after the music stops so that the eye can settle on these women who’ve just danced their hearts out. My mindset there is, “I’m late, everybody’s in their place—I wonder where my spot is?”
One of my favorite sections is in the “Russian Dance” when I sauté, piqué arabesque and then bring my back leg in to coupé, and the boy is chasing me. I can be really daring with my partners, because they’re all so good. But my favorite part of the music is later, at the beginning of my last entrance in the “Russian Dance.” The way the music builds gives me chills. So much of what Balanchine did was incredible, but this just feels like glory.
It’s such a serious moment, but the final lift feels funny. You’ve just done this great ballet, but you have to stand with your legs a little apart so the men can get hold of your ankles, and then you get hoisted up with flexed feet so you can stand on someone’s shoulders. I have to be careful not to get to the final pose too soon—I literally tell myself to do the port de bras back like a snail. But the music is so sublime; it just takes you right back into that beauty.
Tip: In Serenade, the ballerina quickly pulls her hair down onstage. Hyltin twists her hair into a high bun, without a hair tie, using two long pins to anchor it towards the top. “I put them in really securely, and then add more pins,” she says. Before her final entrance, she removes every pin except the anchors, which she pulls out onstage during her chaîné turns.