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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Liebeslieder Walzer, As Good As It Gets

Liebeslieder Walzer
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
29 April, 1 May 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
published 3 May 2004

One hour, two song cycles, a pause between them when the curtain comes down, two pianists, four singers, four monogamous couples in exquisitely theatrical versions of evening dress, dancing and flirting in a candlelit room that was apparently inspired by the Amalienburg Palace in Munich, yet is not royal but haut-bourgeois—a room that, in a dream, middle-class Americans might fantasize themselves occupying. Thirty-three sung waltzes. One waltz, the last, set to a poem by Goethe, is not staged as a dance but rather is performed to be listened to by both the dancers and the audience. “Now, Muses, enough!,” it goes. “You try in vain to portray how misery and happiness alternate in a loving heart.” Everyone is still, a truth is being related. The dancers, with gloved hands, applaud the singers, and the audience, raised from its revery, recognizes the cue and follows suit.

Liebeslieder Walzer is an essay in partnering, perhaps the most intense and prolonged in the repertory of world ballet. This last moment, in which the dancers partner the audience, momentarily erasing the divide between onstage and offstage, gives a sense of both the intimacy and the command that must have characterized Balanchine’s imaginative world in 1960, when Liebeslieder was given its première. And yet, although cherished by fans, the work does not seem to have been among Balanchine’s most popular. Its length tests an audience’s concentration—up until this season, I have never attended a Liebeslieder performance in which people did not walk out at the pause—and the inundation of Brahms provoked resistance in some critical quarters, as it has among music critics ever since Hanslick’s reservations that Brahms was too philosophical and too unworldly to be writing waltzes. The fact that some of the most worldly choreographers of the 20th century—Isadora Duncan, George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, and Mark Morris—have begged to differ suggests that Brahms is a much more interesting fellow than might be supposed. (Clara Wieck Schumann certainly thought him interesting. Indeed, Liebeslieder Walzer shares structural, theatrical, and emotional elements with Balanchine’s Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbündlertänze,’ made two decades later, as if it were a second shoe dropping.)

There is a film of the original cast in this ballet at the Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Alas, it is very fragile and can only be viewed without sound, hand-cranked on a special machine. Space and dynamics are obliterated there, but not the passion of the dancers—the sense that they were living out the dances rather than performing them. Amazingly, subsequent casts have sometimes been able to convey that effect of a process being invented as it happens: the last time I saw this quality full strength prior to this season was in the performances of 1983 or ’84, shortly after Balanchine’s death. By then, the original, intimate and airy set by David Hays had been replaced by the more lavishly specific set of David Mitchell, a different kind of poetic enclosure, but a lovely one in its way. (The original set, visible in that early film, was made for Balanchine. It was smaller, more elegant than grand, and more open to the nighttime surround than what we see now. Mitchell’s, commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein as I remember, is a sumptuously appointed room, with a clear definition between inside and outside.) In performances since those of the early 1980’s, the ballet lost definition, and there was one season when the singing was very sour, and I thought the entire thing had just died. What difference does it make whether one can identify all the movement motifs and gestural threads, what interpretation matters, if the performances aren’t of the highest quality? And, although some Balanchine ballets can tolerate efficiency in place of inspiration, Liebeslieder Walzer is not among them. It is as far from being dancer- or singerproof as Cremora is from cream. In many ways, it is the ultimate example of Balanchine’s faith in music and dancing and dancers, and, with its luminous setting and Karinska ballgowns and romantic tutus, it is a Gesamtkunstwerk on the road that Wagner chose not to travel.

So it is a deep pleasure to be able to report that the two performances of Liebeslieder last week, both with the same cast, were as exacting and austerely beautiful as NYCB c. 2004 could possibly present. Kyra Nichols—reviving her unearthly images from the production of the early ‘80’s—and Jock Soto provided as fluent an example of Balanchinean partnering as I have ever seen: the images of Nichols floating, corpselike, in Soto’s hands, or of him seeming to pluck her out of the air from a jump, were mesmerizing beyond words, and the Orpheus pas de deux, with its ambiguous cheek-to-cheek pose on the afterbeat of silence at the end of the waltz, was probably surpassed by the original cast, yet it was as great as anything I witnessed 20 years ago. Darci Kistler and Philip Neal took on the parts originated by Diana Adams and Bill Carter: a much lighter and less intricate partnership than the original one, and without the otherworldly exaltation that Suzanne Farrell conveyed, yet invested with a quality of golden youth that had a wonder of its own. Miranda Weese and Jared Angle, as the darkened couple on storm-toss’d seas, curated their roles with tremendous care, and Weese went beyond curatorial responsibility into something greater at certain moments. In the most profound pas de deux, suggestive of married love (originally for Melissa Hayden and Jonathan Watts), Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hübbe were entirely committed to their roles, plunged far into Brahms, and a joy to watch. I should also like to mention the musicians who contributed so much to this ballet: Nancy Allen Lundy (soprano), Bruce Sledge (tenor), Jennifer Roderer (mezzo), Jan Opalach (bass-baritone), and the pianists Richard Moredock and Susan Walters. Their tempi were fast—too fast for some balletgoers, who remember a dramatic division between the more painstaking, “realistic” first section, with the women in heeled slippers and the ballroom frame preserved (Brahms’ “Love Song Waltzes”) and the heartstoppingly swift, classical second section, with danse d’école partnering and the women on point (“New Love Song Waltzes”). But not too fast for me.

I loved to see these dancers fly in space and fly out of themselves in feeling.

NYCB’s programming for the spring has been put together with evident care, and it was wonderful that the Saturday evening performance—during which some 200 alumnae and alumni of NYCB, including 14 members of the company at its 1948 inauguration were present in the house to take a bow—was an “All-German Evening,” in which Liebeslieder was flanked by Kammermusik No. 2 (to Hindemith) and Brahms-Schönberg Quartet. Betty Cage once related in an interview that, in the 1960’s, Balanchine had become so smitten with Brahms that he asked her to program six performances of exclusively Liebeslieder and Brahms-Schönberg. Unfortunately, the audience didn’t share the choreographer’s regard for the composer, and the programming was never repeated. However, on this evening, Balanchine’s devotion was commemorated.

Photo:  The company in Liebeslieder Walzer in a previous performance. Photo:  Paul Kolnik.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 16
May 3, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mindy Aloff



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on May 3, 2004