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Master work; Balanchine Trust gives Neglia Ballet permission to 'Serenade'

"Serenade," set to Tchaikovsky's glorious "Serenade for Strings," was the great choreographer George Balanchine's first ballet in America. It is also the Neglia Ballet Artists' first full-length Balanchine.

A ballet company has to apply for permission from the Balanchine Trust to perform the work of the master. Among the videos submitted in the Neglia's application were dances from its production of "The Nutcracker," presented last December at Shea's Performing Arts Center with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

"We sent 'The Waltz of the Flowers,' and the snow scene," says Heidi Halt, the administrator of the company along with her husband, Sergio Neglia. "They approved our work."

The rest of the process was simple, and surprisingly affordable. "It's accessible," she said, "whereas, if we brought in a living choreographer, it would cost a fortune."

The Neglia is dancing "Serenade" at Shea's on Friday, in tandem with another Tchaikovsky masterpiece, the second half of "Swan Lake."

Tchaikovsky wrote "Swan Lake," based on dark German and Russian folk tales, in a burst of creative passion, and the music has an obsessive beauty. The first of Tchaikovsky's great ballets, it has a following all its own -- and a reach beyond its own stage.

"Swan Lake" figures in "Billy Elliot" in a euphoric scene in which the boy Billy dances with his grown-up self. It also inspired the 2010 movie thriller "Black Swan." (Halt disapproves of the movie, saying it falsely paints dancers as addled, twisted creatures. "It's an unhealthy way to look at dance," she says. "We stay away from it.")

There is even an animated Barbie video of "Swan Lake." While only loosely based on the story, it features a lot of Tchaikovsky's brilliant music, and it helped yet another generation of children discover the magic of Tchaikovsky and dance. "I saw it with my daughter," Halt laughs.

Both "Serenade" and "Swan Lake" feature Sergio Neglia, the lithe, intense Argentina-born dancer who anchors the Neglia company. Local audiences -- even children -- know Neglia from his colorful signature roles, which include the prince in "The Nutcracker," the tormented slave Spartacus from Khachaturian's "Spartacus," and Baba Yaga, the Russian gremlin in the Neglia's annual Halloween production.

In the excerpt from "Swan Lake," Neglia is starring as Prince Siegfried. Act II is pivotal, he says. It tells of how Prince Siegfried, heading out hunting with his new bow and arrow, encounters a fascinating swan.

"He's about to kill her -- because he is hunting for swans in the Middle Ages, that's what they do," Neglia explains. "But he sees this incredible creature with allure and beauty, and he stops. And that moment is intense. From that on, it builds to the pas de deux." The evocative pas de deux from that act is famous.

"Serenade" poses different challenges. Balanchine arranges the dancers in unusual groups and lines. It explores not only the male/female pairing but the relationships among a group of women. They link arms, or take each other's hands, or carry off synchronized feats, including "the peel," a sort of ultra-sophisticated form of "the wave."

The costumes, as dictated by Balanchine, emphasize their unity. In the Neglia production, the women are garbed identically in cool blue leotards and tulle.

The ballet was personal for Balanchine, Halt suggests.

"Supposedly when he choreographed it he had 17 girls, which is an odd number. That was the number of girls who showed up that day," she says.

Balanchine let the dancers' humanity inspire him.

"He choreographed a moment when a girl falls down," Halt says. "One woman was late for rehearsal. So at the end of this beautiful scene -- all the girls are posed with their arms raised -- at the end of the dance, this girl comes in looking for her spot on the stage."

Halt sees "Serenade" as fresh and new, though it was written in 1934. "A lot of the movement is off balance. The hips are askew. You're not dancing necessarily on balance. You're always going from one leg to another. Especially the soloists, one of the couples, most of their partnering is sort of counterbalanced.

"The dancers love the piece," Halt says. "There's a joy, when you're dancing it."

Friday's production brings a different kind of rejoicing as well.

"Being able to do this program with the orchestra is the icing on the cake," Halt says. "What Buffalo doesn't really know is that this collaboration we have with Shea's and the BPO is pretty extraordinary.

"We're not a big company. We're tiny. We have a very little staff. But we are able to put on a large, world-class production with orchestra. There are so many companies with $5 million budgets that aren't able to do their performances with orchestra. And world-class performances, to boot."