Monday, February 22, 2010

At the New York City Ballet: Liebeslieder Walzer and Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2

By Mary Sheeran

Every once in a while, I need to see ballet, particularly ballets by George Balanchine, and on Friday, Feb. 19, the New York City Ballet presented an All Balanchine Program. I invited Retta to come with me, being pretty sure she’d like it. (I think she did!) The program comprised Liebeslieder Walzer, perhaps Balanchine’s most profound and elegant work, and his Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, one of my favorite of Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky ballets.

Balanchine loved songs. He had a Russian’s passion for melody and, regarding his profound relationships with Stravinsky and Tschaikovsky, he would insist that Tschaikovsky’s music was singable and remind us that Stravinsky’s works were based on song. And much of the music Balanchine choreographed was based on the song form, too: the da capo aria, the cantilena, the ritornella, and simple folk tunes: One of the movements in Divertimento 15 (Mozart) is to a song about a farmer’s wife who lost her cat. Indeed, Balanchine put steps to all sorts of songs and kept all the toes in the house humming. Think of Who Cares (Gershwin), Union Jack (British folk tunes), The Nutcracker (French folk tunes), Le Baiser de la Fee, even Monumentum pro Gesualdo, and Western Symphony (all together now: “From this valley they say you are going…).

In 1960, Balanchine created dances for Johannes Brahms’ two sets of Liebeslieder Walzer (Opus 52 of 1869 and Opus 65 of 1874). Its debut electrified his audiences at City Center, the company’s first home, as they witnessed Balanchine’s love of song joined to his passion for searching, waltzing lovers. He set dances to all 32 of Brahms’ love song waltzes, and they come at us with an astonishing outpouring of inventiveness, emotion, nuance, and romance.

The curtain rises on what is either an elegant ballroom in Brahms’ Vienna or an elegant soiree in a palazzo; those who have gathered in the luxurious, candle- and chandelier-lit parlor appear to be friends and perhaps more. All wear evening clothes of the mid-1800s, the women wearing soft, shimmering satin gowns (designed by the great Karinska) and thin slippers with small heels. Four of them have begun to sing, and a man and woman play the piano (Susan Walters and the wonderful Richard Moredock). After listening for a few moments, the remaining four couples, as also happens in several of Balanchine’s works, turn from listening to dancing. They waltz, simply, and then, oh, gloriously. Moods move swiftly through the dancers’ bodies – from sweetness to flirtation to passion to despair and possibly tragedy -- Balanchine’s ballrooms always have some threat in them. Assisted by Balanchine, we hear that Brahms’ music changes with sudden swiftness as do the steps – as do the feelings of love.

Lovers exchange Intimate whispers. Tender looks evoke strong passion. Men hold their gloved hands before their eyes as they lead their partners, eyes blinded to the faces of their lovers (ah, Orpheus.). The women are lifted, gently, into the air, are embraced and enfolded within their partner’s arms. Couples waltz, slide, plunge across the floor. A man gently touches the shoulders of a woman looking into the darkness who seems to awaken at his touch, and she moves forward into the light, then bends backward into his arms. The women turn and sink back before their lovers, but in the end, it is the men who genuflect before them and kiss their hands.

At the end of the first section, the dancers rush through the room’s three sets of double doors and escape into the moonlight. After a short pause, the ballroom has disappeared and the lighting has deepened in shadow. The singers begin Brahms’ Neues Liebeslieder Walzer, and the dancers return. Now the women are wearing ballet length tulle skirts and toe shoes on their feet. There are more intimate whispers and looks, with every gesture a deeper meaning, a small key opening greater doors of love – or not. We move beyond the social aspects of dance to where it takes our hearts. Men and women enfold each other, twist inside each other’s arms, touch softly, then plunge across the floor. Assisted by their partners, women soar into the air so easily in this love that could bring madness as the music becomes more agitated. But the waltz remains.

The much quoted words of Balanchine are in the program of how “In the first act, it is the real people who are dancing. In the second act, it is their souls.” I like to think that people and souls dance together and that in fact, these two sets of dances are occurring simultaneously in time (for all social dances have a between the lines undercurrent). Certainly in the second part, the dancing becomes freer, deeper, more emotional (but dare I say, not less human). Always, the dancing remains rooted in the waltz and the waltz remains rooted in the song. I could follow both the waltzing and the various pulses beneath that Balanchine could show us along with his staggering inventiveness of the drama of dance and of the heart.

The singers, also human instruments resonating with body and soul at the same time, are indispensible to this piece, and not only because Brahms happened to have his notes set with words, but because it is important in this ballet that the singers face the audience and do not seem to have anything to do with the dancers. The singers are simultaneously in the ballroom as well as in that other realm of the dancers’ souls, but they are also singing to us. (Perhaps the dancers are in the singers’ imaginations?) It isn’t that the words of the songs are what matter as that by watching the dancing, we don’t need to know the words. Yet the impetus in the music is fully, and richly, human – vocal in a deeper, spiritual dimension.

I’ve seen Liebeslieder Walzer many (not enough) times, but Friday’s performance was the first in which I felt a strong connection between the singers and dancers. Usually I’ve thought of the singers over THERE and the dancers over HERE, but on Friday, they all seemed to be in the same place. During one of Darci Kistler’s solos, I had the uncanny feeling that she was doing the singing. Each time she bent back, her deep longing seemed to come from her in the form of the soprano’s voice. This illusion was helped by the soprano, Ashley Emerson, who seemed particularly attuned to the dancing in her. She was facing us, as were all the singers (Katherine Rohrer, mezzo; Michael Slattery, tenor; and Thomas Meglioranza, baritone), but she knew exactly what was going on, perhaps because it was happening to her.

Toward the end of the second set, the dancers leave their realm of shadows and souls as the singers continue with Brahms’ final song. We are again in the ballroom, the candles glowing in the deep shadows of the mature night, and the dancers returning slowly, the women again wearing their satin evening gowns. They return to listen. Have they in fact been doing this all evening, along with us? Was the dancing all in their – and our – imaginations? Were we all transformed just by watching and listening?

As I listened, I recalled what Tamara Geva (a Balanchine dancer and also wife) said: “His dances came out of his dreams. He broke the existing barriers, expanded dancing into new spheres, and his unbelievable imagination made it soar. He showed that movement had no limitation, that it was an endless language.... And it all seemed to come so easily from some secret place within him.”

The waltzers (Darci Kistler, Jared Angle, Jennie Somogyi, Sebastien Marcovici, Janie Taylor, Philip Neal, Wendy Whelan, and Justin Peck) were all excellent. I was particularly struck by how Wendy Whelan has matured into an extraordinarily lyrical dancer while maintaining her unique power. A few years ago, I used to close my eyes when she came on. Now I think that she was able to cross a border Merrill Ashley couldn’t; I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing – I’ll have to keep watching. The men were as they ought to be: attentive, hopeful, yearning, and lost, those searching men who so often appear in the Balanchine canon.

They ought to have reversed the order of the program and left us in the wonder of listening and remembering, but I suppose the company wanted to end on the contrasting blaze and power of the Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, which takes place in that great brilliant blue Balanchine sky realm (Arlene Croce called it Balanchine’s Illyria).

This concerto, which Balanchine taught us to hear (hardly anyone played it until he got us to see it), begins with classic courtly dancing. A row of men and women face each other, the men bow, the women open their arms and bow. It’s all a courtly ritual that is a common element in Balanchine’s ballets; the courtliness takes us into a lost world. Indeed, that is the ballet’s connection with Liebeslieder. Tschaikovsky’s music as illustrated by Balanchine seems to pick up the dancers’ bodies and carry them off, ballerinas whirling fiercely and then suddenly arabesquing, pausing, and sweeping off stage. The pianist’s hands and the dancers’ feet move swiftly on sound, air, and energy, defying laws of gravity and speed in treacherous turns, both men and women showing their power in their with-the-music ferocity. The women’s roles in this piece are great ones – strong, demanding, breathtaking.

Well…Friday’s performance was actually not quite there yet. The dancers were a little too earthbound. Teresa Reichlin is a strong dancer, but I could almost hear her lament, Wendy-like, that she couldn’t fly (yet). Kathryn Morgan’s dancing was a tad too lovely and not charged (yet) for this fierce ballet. The corps’ footwork struck me (and amazed me) as being plodding. No, that couldn’t be (could it be?). Perhaps it was the conductor (Andrews Sill), who seemed to be holding something back. Or perhaps it was the pianist, Elaine Chelton’s, lack of definition between the delicate and the exhuberant phrases that distinguish the score’s elegance and complexity. If you dance to show the music and the music is muddy, do you dance muddy?

But there are so many layers in a Balanchine ballet; if one disappoints, you just turn the mental dial. So I listened and watched, rather than watched and listened, and looked for relationships between the corps work in this piece and in, say, Symphony in Three Movements. Balanchine did not consider Tschaikovsky a romantic composer but a modern one, and I tried to see his point but had to take it mostly on trust Friday. I have seen this company charge through this Tschaikovsky ballet like gangbuster poets and have left wondering, what was that exactly? Was what I saw even possible? Friday’s cast was entirely possible and not quite from that Illyria, lady – but perhaps all they need is a little fairy dust. Or the audience getting up and crying out, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, just DO!

On the other hand, I was happy to be shown again how beautiful the second movement is, aided by Stephen Hanna’s sensitive, searching soul, grasping his two lines of women and sending them soaring even as he was left alone. I found myself wondering – had he just come back from a ballroom in Vienna?

Liebeslieder Walzer: Music by Johannes Brahms (Opus 52 and Opus 65). Choreographed by George Balanchine. Scenery by David Mitchell. Costumes by Karinska. Lighting by Mark Stanley (Original lighting by Ronald Bates). Premiere: Nov. 22, 1960, City Center of Music and Drama, New York.

Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2: Music by Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (Piano concerto No. 2 in G Major). Choreography by George Balanchine. Costumes by Gary Lisz. Lighting by Mark Stanley. Premiere: June 25, 1941. American Ballet Caravan, Teatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro. New York City Ballet Premiere: Oct. 15, 1964.

The New York City Ballet winter season is in its final weeks at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. Remaining programs include an All Robbins evening (Dances at a Gathering, West Side Story Suite on Feb. 23 and 24) and George Balanchine’s full evening of Jewels (Emeralds, Rubies, Diamonds, set to music by Faure, Stravinsky, and Tschaikovsky, respectively, Feb. 25-28). Tickets are available at the theater’s box office and through the company’s Web site,

(Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Singer/writer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006. Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

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