Brian Seibert and Apollinaire: Weeping over the lost worlds of “Liebeslieder Walzer”; plus, does a ballet corps distil or diffuse?

[Brian Seibert, contributor to the New Yorker's Goings on About Town section, is writing a book on the history of tap. He's responding to my response, below, to a couple of nights at the New York City Ballet, one with Terry Teachout for "Liebeslieder Walzer" and another for "Serenade," both by Balanchine.]
I also was there on Thursday and, like Terry, I cried. “Liebeslieder” always has that effect on me. I love “Serenade” too, though I don’t know that the corps causes more distillation — more diffusion maybe; that’s how drama becomes atmosphere, as you say. A mass is always going to have a different effect from an intertwining of couples. “Echo and setting” is right — the corps is chorus.
Beyond the poetic distillation, detail after gorgeous detail, what I love best about “Liebeslieder” is the way that such an intimate dance — a dance with no corps — manages to suggest something world-historical. It’s not specific; I sometimes imagine it as a mix of what was lost in World War I, sometimes as what was destroyed by Hitler. Some lost beauty that appears before us for a moment. That, I think, is what makes me weep.
A lost beauty: “Liebeslieder” with that cast of veterans on Thursday night (Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Wendy Whelan, Miranda Weese) also makes me think, “This is a dance that still lives.” With just about everything else in the New York City Ballet repertory, I’m inclined to believe those voices that insist that I, someone who started watching the company only five years ago, came too late. I read the old accounts and I watch the pieces today, and I sit there imagining them done differently in subtle ways that make all the difference. Watching “Liebeslieder,” I can’t really imagine any better.
[Apollinaire:] Oooooooooooooohh, I like that idea of a lost European world being glimpsed through this ballet, Brian. Neat!
Also, I understand what you mean, that a corps would seem to diffuse, rather than distill, the drama. But what interests me is that maybe it doesn’t always work that way. I may have been confusing two sensations at once: the emotional respite that moments of the corps provide, on the one hand, and the poetic pileup that they enable, on the other.
For example, with “Serenade,” the momentous gestures of the woman who is carried to her death wouldn’t mean as much if we didn’t feel what a gail wind this ballet conceives time as. Poetic distillation works by lending the particular a feel of generality, or universal applicability. So it makes sense that a corps would have a poetic function.
There isn’t much background in poetry. As in dream, every moment is now. As a visual art, dance may make field/ground distinctions, but the emotional sense we make of it doesn’t, I don’t think. The seeming periphera and seeming center shape each other. Otherwise, the most intense or affecting dances would always be the ones without a corps.
By analogy, in Mozart’s piano concertos, which are structured like operas, the violins nuance the piano, not just the other way around. It’s not like the piano says all the important things and then the orchestra simply responds “Yes’m.”
Anyway, I revised my ditty to reflect your feedback. Thank you!
Re: the old NYCB world being better: everyone sure says so, and there are definitely dances I have to squint at to find. But “Serenade” on Friday night wasn’t one of them.
Thanks so much for writing, Brian.
[The discussion of "Serenade," "Liebeslieder," and the corps continues with Foot contributor Paul Parish's marvelous essay, and ends with me here. 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.]

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