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February 2, 2007

TT: Old (toe) shoe

Yesterday was…well, a bit much.

I arose at seven to meet a composer friend with whom I may be collaborating on an opera. (More as it happens.)

I returned to my apartment an hour later, then spent the next four hours writing today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, finishing at noon.

A few minutes later I received an e-mail informing me that Whitney Balliett had died, so I wrote a tribute and posted it while waiting for the drama column to be edited. I signed off on the column at one p.m.

At two-thirty I received an e-mail from the Journal advising me that Gian Carlo Menotti had died and asking whether I wanted to write a “Sightings” column about his life and work for Saturday’s paper. I thought about it for thirty seconds, then replied, “O.K. By what time do you need it?” The answer: six p.m. I took a deep breath, cleared off my desk, put on the 1947 original-cast recording of Menotti’s The Medium, and started writing. At 5:59 I finished editing the piece, and by 6:03 it was on its way to the Journal via e-mail.

Half an hour later I went out to grab a quick bite to eat, and by 7:45 I was sitting next to a blogger friend in row K of the New York State Theater, where New York City Ballet was about to dance George Balanchine’s Square Dance, Liebeslieder Walzer, and Stars and Stripes. It was the first time I’d seen NYCB in two years, and the first time I’d seen Liebeslieder Walzer in at least five.

I wrote about Liebeslieder Walzer in All in the Dances, my brief life of Balanchine:

The dancers drift outdoors into a moonlit garden and the curtain falls for a breathless moment. When it rises again, the ballroom itself is flooded with moonlight, the women are wearing tutus and toe shoes, and the decorous ballroom dancing of the first act is replaced by the heightened gestures of ballet. At the end, the women reappear in their party gowns, and the couples listen in stillness to the last waltz, whose words, sung in German, are by Goethe: Now, Muses, enough!/You strive in vain to show/How joy and sorrow alternate in loving hearts./You cannot heal the wounds inflicted by love;/But assuagement comes from you alone. “The words ought to be listened to in silence,” Balanchine wrote, surely thinking of the joys and sorrows of his own complicated life.

The costume change midway through Liebeslieder Walzer is a stroke of fantasy as stunning in its quieter way as the climactic flying lifts of The Four Temperaments. Balanchine revealed its meaning to Bernard Taper: “In the first act, it’s the real people that are dancing. In the second act, it’s their souls.” But more than a few members of the ballet’s earliest audiences, bored by its unending succession of “love-song waltzes,” would slip out of the theater during the pause between acts. In an oft-told anecdote that may or may not be true, Balanchine and [Lincoln] Kirstein were watching a performance together. “Look how many people are leaving, George,” Kirstein moaned, to which Balanchine replied, “Ah, but look how many are staying!” Today, though New York City Ballet now performs Liebeslieder Walzer only infrequently, it is loved by connoisseurs for what Arlene Croce has called its “persistent note of melancholy and tragic remorse,” and there are those, myself included, who regard it as their favorite Balanchine ballet of all.

I wondered as I waited for the curtain to go up whether I would still feel the same way about Liebeslieder Walzer as I had when I wrote those words. Fifteen minutes later my face was wet with tears, and in the brief pause between the two halves of the ballet a stranger sitting next to me touched me on the arm and whispered, “You really love that ballet, don’t you?”

“I sure do,” I said.

* * *

To read what I wrote about Menotti, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.

Go here to read Alex Ross’ brief but thoughtful tribute.

Bernard Holland’s New York Times obituary is here.

Tim Page’s Washington Post appreciation is here.

Posted February 2, 2007 12:00 PM

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