Paul Parish: more on the lost worlds of “Liebeslieder” and “Serenade”–of Germany and Shakespearean Tempest-tossed lands

[My friend and colleague Paul Parish, of Berkeley, sent me this incredible rumination on Balanchine’s “Liebeslieder Walzer” and “Serenade” last night. It’s a response to the previous two posts, first by me, then by Brian Seibert and me. 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.]
Hey Apollinaire,
I’m with you about “Serenade” — though I do love “Liebeslieder,” and I really do. It’s in the apparently infinite variety Balanchine finds in Allemande turns. Those arches you mention — in square dancing, they’re “Allemandes,” “Allemande” being French for “German.”
Cajun dancing has them by the gazillion: “pretzel” turns. Thing is, they require lots of tact to do well, for the shoulder is easily wrenched and a partner who leads them wrong can hurt you. But in this ballet, they just go on opening and opening. Variants involve laying the hands across the shoulders, and they keep making hoops that seem to bind but never do.
Such intricate partnering, it’s like a game with a million rules. So the partnering seems to reflect the possibilities: there can be a kind of freedom inside relationships that have such elaborate coding. The people can be safe within limits and thus be free to grant intimacy, for the time being, and feel each other out through the nuances, the urgency or the holding back, that color any particular conventional move.
There is certainly an image of a lost world there: it’s possible to be homesick for it, even when you didn’t know it yourself. My grandmother had that. She played the piano, violin, and zither. All of her sisters played several instruments–there were six of them, and they had a small orchestra for music at home. That was gone by the next generation — my mother “played the radio.”
The big difference with “Serenade” is that there’s a whole ocean between our world and the one that’s lost. The corps is like the sea — they move, to my mind, like waves dashing against rocks, currents surging through pilings, formations that dissolve–and the people who seem to emerge at times as protagonists are like creatures from the old-time romances: tempest-tossed, washed up on the coasts of Abyssinia and Illyria, with brief glimpses of a face that seems familiar or could be loved, but relentlessly, things become ever more fabulous and strange.
The thing about the chorus is that in antiquity, they sang and danced the odes — which were almost like rap in their hypnotic non-sequiturs. At least Pindar’s were:
Best of things is water. And gold,
Like a fire at night, outshines all other wealth.
And if you wish to sing of glory in the Games,
Look no further in the daytime sky for any star
More warming than the sun —
And that’s just a translation, without the rhythm, so you can’t really feel the oceanic flood of ideas streaming and surging.
Well, you got me going.
The great thing about a chorus is that they’re our representatives onstage — they think what we’d think, do what we’d do. Much of the weeping is done, so to speak, for us. In a ballet like “Liebeslieder,” we see our grandparents, or their grandparents, when they were young and we have to do our own weeping for all that beauty so long gone.
Apollinaire responds: My God, what wonderful connections, Paul. Very persuasive too.
Re: looking back even to something one can’t personally remember: I don’t even get that far–surrounded by boorishness on all sides. I’m quite sure no one among my European forebears ever stepped inside a parlor, much less whirled around in one. Falling-down muddy shacks and barns, more like. (I did have a great-uncle on my father’s mother’s side who played the trumpet, and my father was so happy to have him, this exception to the family rule.)

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