On Thursday I saw the New York City Ballet in Balanchine’s “Liebeslieder Walzer” (Love Song Waltzes) with my virtual friend Terry Teachout. (Besides being an AJ blogger, he is the author of a wonderful brief life of Balanchine, “All in the Dances.”) “Liebeslieder” was very moving, and so was Terry, a man weeping his way through a ballet, tears splashing down his face. (His report here.)
Last night, they put me in the fourth row for Balanchine’s “Serenade”–practically inside it. The grand ballet is a single whoosh of destiny almost from beginning to end. I love it more than “Liebeslieder,” I realized. It’s not in my nature to choose between two ballets I love. But Terry’s such a classifier, a rater, a character out of “High Fidelity,” that it got me thinking.
What I like best about the intimate “Liebeslieder,” featuring four couples, are its poetic distillations of passion. In the first half, the lovers’ gloved hands rise and flutter like doves. The couples make archways for each other and push each other through, preparing their entrance into the kingdom of the soul, which is the provenance of the dance’s second half. “In the first act, it’s the real people that are dancing,” Balanchine said. “In the second act, it’s their souls.”
“Serenade” is simply more distillation–more operatic, with not only individual voices but a large orchestra of girls in low-hanging sweeps of sky-blue tulle. We tend to think of distillation as a reduction down to an essence, but it can also work by expansion, as does the corps in “Serenade.” The rush of women makes the drama of the principals legible. The women have a clarifying effect. (Why dance needs strong institutions, so these large ballets that fulfill the great promise of the art form can be created and performed.)
“Serenade” definitely has a story, but the members of the corps are not so much dramatic characters as the conversion of those characters into an atmosphere, a notion about how time moves. Sometimes also the corps is a reprieve from the characters.
That injection of impersonality–a flooding that carries us beyond the person–gives me more room to feel. “Liesbeslieder” presses in.
[The discussion of "Serenade, "Liebeslieder," and the corps continues with Brian Seibert and me, then regular Foot contributor Paul Parish dives in beautifully here, and I finish the discussion with this post. For more on Balanchine's "Serenade" (and who can get too much of "Serenade"?) here's my response to Pennsylvania Ballet's interpretation at City Center in November 2007.]