• Thursday wasn’t nearly so busy as Wednesday: I wrote a speech in the morning, met Maud for lunch, then came back home and blogged a bit. (My scheduled nap slipped through the cracks.)
As for the evening, I just got back from seeing New York City Ballet dance
George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer. It was the first time I’d seen NYCB since writing All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, and the first time the company has danced Liebeslieder Walzer in several seasons. Here’s what I said about it in the book:
New York City Ballet toured the Soviet Union in 1962, the first time Balanchine had been there since his defection thirty-eight years before. “Welcome to Russia, home of the classical ballet,” a Soviet official told him as he stepped off the plane in Moscow. “Thank you,” he replied without missing a beat, “but America is now home of the classical ballet. Russia is home of the old romantic ballet.” But that didn’t mean he had turned his back on the romanticism of his youth. Liebeslieder Walzer (1960, music by Brahms) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962, music by Mendelssohn), for example, were both profoundly romantic in every sense of the word–as well as formally innovative.
Liebeslieder Walzer is set not in a sky-blue void but a candle-lit ballroom where four aristocratic-looking young couples in evening dress spend an hour waltzing together, accompanied by the four singers and two pianists with whom they share the stage. The couples are entangled in subtly differing ways (one of the women, for example, appears to be older than her partner-lover), though there is no plot or Tudor-style “acting” to give away their intimate secrets. Romantic ends are achieved by modern means: all you see are the setting and the steps, with everything else left to the imagination. 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.
That isn’t a bad description of Liebeslieder Walzer, but reading it immediately after having seen the ballet is somewhat disheartening. To capture the smallest part of its mystery and complexity would have taken me at least a chapter, which I didn’t have to spare. In any case, few things are more futile than trying to describe a Balanchine ballet in words, least of all this profound meditation on romantic love. All I really hoped to do was make the reader want to go see it, which you can do on Saturday and next Tuesday at the New York State Theater. (Go here for details.)
The program also included Symphony in C, about which I last had occasion to write in a piece about a performance by American Ballet Theatre that I saw only a few short weeks after 9/11:
Then, too, there was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which received its long-overdue ABT debut. Few other modern artists working in any medium have had Balanchine’s uncanny ability to transport the attentive viewer into a better-ordered universe of romance and grace–and humor. So it was with Symphony in C. As the curtain rose for the ten thousandth time on that familiar stageful of women in white tutus poised before a blue backdrop, one felt the world snap back to normal again–just what all the pundits had been assuring us would never happen. It put me in mind of a poem by Edwin Muir, “Reading in Wartime,” that makes the case for sonnets about skylarks: “Boswell’s turbulent friend/And his deafening verbal strife,/Ivan Ilyich’s death/Tell me more about life,/The meaning and the end/Of our familiar breath,/Both being personal,/Than all the carnage can,/Retrieve the shape of man,/Lost and anonymous.”
I guess that isn’t dance criticism, but I like it anyway, if only because it brings to mind an evening that meant a great deal to me at the time.
• Now playing on iTunes: Ernie Wilkins’ “The Jazz Connoisseur,” recorded in 1961 by Harry James and most recently available as part of Jazz Masters: Harry James, a Verve anthology of James’ MGM recordings. I was introduced to this up-tempo swinger by a musician friend who several years ago underwent a life-threatening operation that left him partly paralyzed. He later told me that listening to “The Jazz Connoisseur” as he lay in his hospital bed helped give him the courage to carry on. I can’t claim to know exactly what he meant–I’ve never been that sick–but I do know a wonderful big-band performance when I hear one, and this definitely fills the bill.