When Balanchine died last year, the question of what would happen to the vast repertory that bears his name became a matter of immediate concern. No one doubted the great pieces would still be danced—but how often, how well, and by whom? And what would happen to the important work that had been allowed to languish even while he was still alive? Those questions received at least one reassuring answer in Karin von Aroldingen’s re-staging of the 1960 Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer in the New York City Ballet’s past season.
Of all the Balanchine revivals, none was more eagerly awaited. Ten years have passed since we have been permitted to see what is widely regarded as a masterpiece of romantic theater, laced with a hundred modern undercurrents—one of those timeless works that look, at first, like period pieces but aren’t. If Chekhov had written Camille we would have something analogous. The most personal of works, yet perfectly objectified on stage, it remains elusive. One can see it again and again and still never be sure of its possible meanings or even of quite having fixed its images in mind as it shifts back and forth between the self-evident and the ambiguous. Gossamer and steel, it rushes past the eyes with such dazzle and inevitability that by the time it’s over, you want the story told again and right away—a story that lasts for almost an hour and is awkwardly divided by a short interval to allow for a costume change.
For Brahms, the waltzes were minor affairs compared to the Requiem and the Chorale Prelude, but in the strange way lesser pieces can sometimes profoundly stir the emotions, the songs soar off into storms and tranquillities far more affecting than the nondescript music required for an evening of dances. Scored for four hands at a single piano and a quartet of voices, the first set of eighteen waltzsongs was composed when Brahms was thirty-six and had moved to Vienna permanently. A second set of fourteen was turned out five years later, in 1874. Undistinguished poems by Friedrich Daumer provide the texts, but the words of the very last song, a coda, are by Goethe—as if Brahms knew he had transcended what he originally set out to do.
Balanchine limits the dancers to four couples. As the curtain rises, all eight dancers are in motion, eventually three trios erupt, as if through an access of energy. Though two couples sometimes dance at the same time, the ballet’s basic structure soon become clear: a series of virtuoso pas de deux, each succeeding the other.
The first section of waltzes is performed with a distinct sense of social decorum. Wild counterimpulses break through, and the skeleton of the waltz is eventually laid bare, three-quarter time plumbed to its depths. The dancers reveal, with a touch, or the denial of it, loneliness, frustration, fulfillment, the cost of experience—real truths about men and women in a …