Throughout his life George Balanchine had a special affinity for the waltz. In his early works such as “Valse Fantaisie” and “Serenade,” and later in his mature pieces, especially in “La Valse” and “Vienna Waltzes,” and finally in “Davidsbündlertänze,” he imbued the waltz with dramatic meaning, bringing this popular social dance form to new emotional highs.
“Liebeslieder Walzer,” a ballet choreographed in 1960 to the two sets of Brahms love songs (op. 52 and op. 65), holds a unique place in Balanchine’s oeuvre. It’s not only one of his best waltz-ballets—it is simply one of his best ballets. In it, the choreographer, with sharp psychological insight and theatrical flair, explores romantic love in its various guises. Turmoil and exhilaration of the love-stricken heart, and ecstasy and misery of the tormented soul, take center stage in this hour-long masterpiece. At once honoring and challenging traditions of the waltz and classical ballet, with “Liebeslieder Walzer” Balanchine showed the dance world both something familiar and something entirely new: a neo-classical ballet made in richly theatrical manner.
After a three-year hiatus, New York City Ballet brought “Liebeslieder Walzer” back to the repertory for the company’s fall season, pairing it on the same program with Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3.” The new double bill offered the audience a foray into the Romantic realm of the great ballet master and the chance to rediscover anew the “shattering, desperate beauty” of “Liebeslieder.”
“Liebeslieder Walzer” is a series of love stories in motion. The ballet unfolds at a fanciful dance soirée held in a lavishly decorated parlor and evokes an intimate gathering of close friends. The women wear long, heavy pale-pink gowns and heeled shoes, the men black tailcoats and white gloves.
At first sight, not much happens; just four couples losing themselves in a rapturous whirl of waltzing. Yet when you look closely enough, you observe the human drama unfolding onstage. The feelings of love—happiness, distress, jealousy, fear, remorse and exaltation—are exquisitely filtered and revealed in movement as the couples swirl around the parlor. With his genius skill, Balanchine transforms the stage into the dramatic space where the dancers, by means of simple yet utterly communicative gestures—fleeting glances, hushed whispers, gentle kisses—expose their utmost intimate desires and reveal their characters. What we see is the fascinating (yet idealistic) world where tempestuous scenes always give way to tender moments of reconciliation and where love reigns supreme. At the end of the first act, as the curtain falls, the couples leave the ballroom, disappearing into the starry night.
The second part of the ballet brings onstage the air of mystery. Clad in translucent tulle gowns and point shoes, the women are reminiscent of spirits, their movements balletic and stylized rather than theatrical and revealing. Luxuriating in their perpetual spin, the couples seem to be floating on air as if in a reverie, blurring the line between the real world and the imagined.
The ballet ends on a quiet, meditative note as the dancers return to the stage in their original opulent costumes to listen to the final song and to savor the beauty of the moment and the music.
It was truly a treat to have “Liebeslieder” back. The performance I attended featured a cast—a mix of the ballet’s veterans and newcomers—that included Jennie Somogyi and Tyler Angle, Sterling Hyltin and Jared Angle, Sara Mearns and Ask la Cour, and Ashley Laracey and Justin Peck.
Somogyi and Tyler Angle made the most memorable impression. Nicely matched, they brought a unique sense of mature feelings and life experience to the ballet. Somogyi stood out for her keen musical and dramatic understanding of the role and her delicate style and nuanced timing. Elegant and courteous, Tyler Angle brought a rapturous intensity to his dancing.
Hyltin was daringly free and spontaneous, while Mearns illuminated her part with considerable glamor and rich expressivity. Ask la Cour projected aristocratic nobility, yet his dramatic expression felt somewhat listless and muted. Peck showed himself naturally suited for the role of a romantic hero. Dashing and suave, he was an ardent and charming lover, but he didn’t seem quite at ease with the flowingly-smooth waltzing style his role demanded.
The excellent quartet of singers (Boya Wei, Blake Friedman, Melissa Fajardo and Zachary James) and two pianists (Andrews Sill and Susan Walters) shared the stage with the dancers and provided the ballet’s haunting accompaniment.
The first three movements of “Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3” continued the theme of romantic yearning of “Liebeslieder.”
In 1970, Balanchine decided to choreograph “Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.3” in its entirety. He appended three newly-created sections to the already-existing “Theme and Variations”—an undisputable masterpiece of classicism set to the music’s final movement, which he made for American Ballet Theatre in 1947. As such, the whole ballet feels like a suite of separate dances—romantic (“Élégie,” “Valse Mélancolique” and “Scherzo”) and classical (“Tema con Variazioni”).
In “Élégie,” dancing with poignant lyricism and air of mystery, her long hair falling over her shoulders, Rebecca Krohn evoked a divine apparition as she captured the heart of Russell Janzen, who, bewitched by her beauty, pursued her with poignant anguish. Megan LeCrone and Justin Peck whirled across the stage as if caught in a vortex of urgency in the ballet’s second part; and Ana Sophia Scheller and Antonio Carmena darted through space with remarkable speed and elegance in “Scherzo.”
But it was the ballet’s finale—the sparkling “Tema con Variazioni”—that ultimately took one’s breath away. Here romantic imagery yields to pure classical display; and, just like in the final moments of “Liebeslieder,” the turbulent emotions subside, love triumphs, and order is restored.
The enchanting Tiler Peck dazzled in the ballerina role, highlighting even more the life-affirming and uplifting effect of the choreography. Andrew Veyette was her admirable, gallant cavalier.