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 world insistently ideal. Human manipulation—the casting off and the luring back—are all the more moving because we cannot say for sure what it is that moves us. After the first eighteen waltzes, is there anything more to say on the subject?
In the second half, the four couples return independently of each other, now more with the air of gorgeous savages (beautifully made-up, exquisitely dressed) than of Viennese waltzers, the long evening dresses exchanged for tulle skirts that suggest tutus. And we see how we have been deluded. There is more to the waltz than we had thought. For now we see waltzes stripped of their social setting, as pure dance, an edgy, barbaric primitiveness in their sweep, the sexual undertones made more apparent (to be retuned in the frantic irresolutions of Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze that Balanchine choreographed in 1980). The dancing body, so beautifully svelte when covered with fabric, is still the same body that longs for water, must have food, is passionate in desire. The body’s physicality, a fact decorum (and the ballet) were designed to suppress, becomes a resource. The contradiction between manners and desire flares up, dies down, only to flare up again, providing a constant and increasing tension. And we see at last the waltz beneath the waltz.
And we see, too, the ballet beneath the ballet. For if the theme of Liebeslieder Walzer is love, its subject is the dance. No other work so illustrates Balanchine’s authority—the ballet explores a similar possibility thirty-two times with the utmost naturalness and inventiveness, creating miniature gallops or intricate sarabandes, as the case may be, each making its formal and emotional point. It is a technical tour de force, but if it were only that, it would be admired rather than loved.
Beyond its surface enchantments, Liebeslieder Walzer hints at the demonic. Suzanne Farrell, in the first cast, playing the role Maria Calegari dances in the second, has the surest sense of its darker dimensions. The wrists are held at an angle just short of pain, the twists and turns stop at the edge of abandon. Farrell completely communicates the exact tone of each of her dances, and the dramatic projection of her relationship to her partner is immediate. Kyra Nichols, who is the best new thing in Liebeslieder Walzer—in fact, wonderful—has not yet even so quite attained the throwaway, transported rapture that Violette Verdy brought to the role in the original 1960 production.
Though Farrell’s controlled melodrama is wonderfully apt, the remarkable thing about the ballet is that it need not be played Farrell’s way. Drama is so inherent in the movement that the dances almost seem to take care of themselves. The drama can be repressed, understated, italicized, ignored—it is always there. Like a great piece of music, it withstands—and is revealed by—any number of interpretations.
But it seems to me there is an ideal version of it, the most difficult to pull off, and the dancer who most completely takes the measure of the piece is Patricia McBride. She is a revelation in it. Recently, it had seemed as if she were losing focus and energy, as if some old spark and daring had permanently gone out of her style. How wrong that notion was becomes clear as Liebeslieder Walzer progresses. She is extraordinary in every way, as if youth had been totally restored to her. The limberness of the adagio backbends, the sprightly recoveries suggest the suppleness of a body completely made new. The fervor and verve of the dance is matched by the same outgoing amplitude of gesture, but she is equally capable of conveying human tension under the suavity of manners. She has never been finer than she is here. Bart Cook plays the courtier with just the right combination of formality and charm.
Liebeslieder Walzer is full of rejections and reconciliations, of tempestuous flourishes—women suddenly lifted into the air, or caught in frozen moments of introspection, homage, or prayer, or merely in some long unconscious dream-like meditation. Sometimes the movements suggest the deference and aggression of bird displays, particularly in one of the most enchanting waltzes when Cook circles McBride with white-gloved fluttering motions. Courtship is the implicit social contract. That the couples remain the same throughout the evening is itself daring because conventional wisdom would suggest that thirty-two waltzes strung together end to end could best achieve variety by the flirtatious switching of partners.
Climaxes occur often but there are three telling ones: when McBride sinks to the floor, one knee down, and then brings the other leg completely around on the floor in front of her as she rises again to repeat the gesture. Strangely memorable, the image is an odd combination of awkwardness, wonder, and grace. Another is when Farrell, one leg extended behind her, goes up on point and looks into the eyes of her partner (Sean Lavery). It is a moment peculiarly moving; the fate of two lives hangs in the balance. And then there is a spectacular exit when Cook swoops McBride up and out of one of the French doors, as if she were being abducted into the summer night. Abandonments—of the self or by others—searchings, and psychological obsessiveness are translated into an insistent waltz tempo, modulating into other dances, particularly the mazurka, so that, though we seem to get away from the waltz, in movement and tone, it is always there, underneath, and we come back to it—an inescapable and relentless urge manifested over and over, sunny, sometimes dark, mercurial.
The ballet is filled with subtle distortions, and its beauty rises out of an interplay between the decorous and the compelled. All reach rather than grasp, its moments of affection—and there are many—are flashlit tableaux. Endlessly searching for connections, the gloved palm rarely touches flesh—the finger tips brush it, the eyes peer suddenly into a partner’s face to find some message, not always a happy one. And when there is a connection, it can be erotic and tender at the same time.
Seeing it with a second cast, one was aware of a change in emphasis as well as temperature. Heather Watts, who was supposed to replace McBride, was injured, and so McBride and Cook danced again, along with a new cast: Judith Fugate, Valentina Kozlova, Karin von Aroldingen in her farewell appearance partnered by Cornel Crabtree, Leonid Kozlov, and Adam Lüders. Through an accident of fate, something became quite clear: one of the challenges of Liebeslieder Walzer is for the women’s roles to become distinct through the merest emphasis of posture, the placement of a foot, the way an extension lifts a skirt into the air and descends. The pace of that descent is telling—the legatos are so crucial that merely to be a good dancer, to move correctly, is to miss the boat. McBride proved again how totally at one she is with its every nuance. She brings to it not only character and flair but the emotional inwardness it is all about.
Yet, all in all, Liebeslieder Walzer is a strangely sad ballet, and presents one great difficulty in its execution: its technical demands require the limberness of young dancers, and yet its emotional atmosphere is one of maturity. It is not a ballet of youth, though it appears to be; it is more like a final summing up of experience, and it is hard to say whether McBride and Farrell bring a special excitement to it because they are who they are or because they danced in it while Balanchine was still rehearsing it. Joseph Duell and Sean Lavery—in the first cast—both fine dancers, seemed somehow too young to convey the sense of what they were dancing. The waltzes have youth but not innocence, and they need both the warmth of adolescence and the sureness of a civilized view of it to get the tone exactly right. Because the waltzes are so often dances of withheld satisfaction, one needs to know a good deal about manners in order to feel what lurks beneath them. Ib Andersen provided the necessary elegance and Stephanie Saland a balancing sanity.
The relation of the two sections of Liebeslieder Walzer is enigmatic. If we think of the four women as changing from evening dress into dance clothes, we would be mistaken. They come back on point, true, but they exchange costume for costume. If they appeared in practice clothes (the usual black and white we have grown accustomed to, and even welcome), the spell the ballet casts would be ruined. Yet there is no getting around the notion that they change for a purpose, moving from one state of being to another. Have we gone from the real to the ideal? From action to thought? Both questions vulgarize the spirit and impression of what passes before our eyes. And yet the distinction in appearance was important enough for Balanchine to have lowered the curtain and gone to the expensive and fussy bother of having the women change (and they will change once more to make their last entrances, becoming their first selves again, as it were, to listen to the final song to a poem of Goethe).
There is a different quality both to the music and the choreography of the last fourteen waltzes, and the old David Hays set made that difference more keenly felt as well as more plausible. We moved from the civilized domesticity of the drawing room out into the summer night of a garden; in place of chandeliers, there were stars. Now, the chandeliers flicker when the women return in their former dresses; the sense of indoor–outdoor worlds as counter-spells has been lost, or at least dimmed. Formerly, the walls became scrims, as I remember, and the furniture was completely removed. Four small gilt chairs lent a Chinese fragility, a kind of tentative subtle delicacy to the action, whereas now the chairs look like solid, expensive antiques, much too good for anyone less than nobility to sit on.
David Mitchell’s new setting is based on a building Balanchine admired, Amalienburg, a rococo pavilion on the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace outside Munich. Though it’s the background Balanchine expressly wanted, Liebeslieder Walzer, for all its new palatial luster, has lost something of its original intimacy. The new set works and is beautiful to look at—one falls under its spell, but it is one spell, not two.
And then there is the question of whether the second section follows the first in time or is simultaneous to it, not anything quite as crude as the unconscious and the conscious, perhaps—though that very un-Balanchinelike notion would illustrate most clearly what I mean—a series of actions, already known, re-investigated, developed, and revealed. A damped turmoil is the more sharply felt because the returning women are, paradoxically, professional dancers. Though mortals are transformed into ballerinas, we have to suspend disbelief with more effort than usual because only trained dancers could perform either the first or second part of the ballet. In any case, the sweet-tempered friendliness of the first eighteen waltzes is left behind; we are in a different part of the forest where the virtues and securities of civilization count for less.
The waltz stood for a certain kind and moment of civilization. Mario Praz’s phrase, “The Romantic Agony,” strikes me as pertinent to Balanchine’s ballet, in which the choreographer seems incarnate—the body of the work is the body of the man. Behind its exaggerated beauties one senses the injuries, hurts, pain, and isolation of the dancer. It goes beyond the mere fleshing out of motifs, the patterning of dance steps, expressing what in other times, and in an old-fashioned phrase, would have been called the secrets of the heart. They are here given their proper form for once. What Liebeslieder Walzer requires is more than technique, more than a gift for drama—it demands the absolute abandonment of the self to someone else’s vision. As with a Chekhov play, the more we say about it, the more we have a sinking feeling of betraying its very essence. In Liebeslieder Walzer, sex and spirit are finely meshed into one grand ecstatic shape.
July 19, 1984