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Liebeslieder Dreams - NYCB 2/18/00

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Liebeslieder Dreams – NYCB 2/18/00

A friend and I once agreed that Liebeslieder Walzer is the ballet that among NYCB goers separates the true believers from the catechumens. It’s more than an hour of waltzes, with little change in rhythmic dynamic and no more than the subtlest changes in mood. For the uninitiated, the more casual ballet fan or even those who usually love Balanchine, it’s rough going. People doze off, or they leave. But among those who delve into Balanchine, it’s the rarest of masterworks, and presented tonight in a ravishing performance. It’s a surprise to see Liebeslieder programmed last, it’s no finale, and the cynic in me says it’s put last to let the orchestra and cross audience members escape. But tonight, I was glad to have it close the evening. I wanted it to stay with me as I left, to let its perfume linger with me as long as I could. I walked from my seat in a daze, almost afraid to speak and when I met friends in the lobby, asking them tentatively, “Was that just me?” “No, it was wonderful. . .” It was relieving to know they had seen what I had felt.

Continuing the metaphor used in previous discussions (and originated by Arlene Croce) of porous and watertight works, Liebeslieder is perhaps the most porous Balanchine of all. Four couples dance a series of Brahms waltzes in a mid 19th Century Viennese salon. The dance takes place in two parts, the first with the women in pale satin gowns and heeled shoes, in the second, they have exchanged them for tulle skirts and pointe shoes. Dreams are essential to Liebeslieder, they are what makes a ballet “porous”. It’s not a direct work, and that’s why people don’t like it; nothing is given to them, and it demands so much in the watching. To really watch a porous ballet like Liebeslieder, or The Leaves are Fading, one must only half watch it. The other half must dream with it. There is no narrative and yet there is the strongest sense of the relationship of each couple, both in gesture and in the choreography itself. The meaning of the glances could change both onstage and in your dreams from day to day; why does Nikolaj Hübbe shield his face with his white-gloved hand from Pascale van Kipnis, what does Charles Askegard whisper in Darci Kistler’s ear? But so could the shading of the steps. Croce wrote of Verdy’s originating performances in the role that when she is lifted prone into her partner’s arms, she is playing at dying, but Kyra Nichols assuming the same role had a premonition of her own death. Van Kipnis, in the role today, was swept not into her death, but into a world of sleep and dreams, guided and protected by Hübbe.

The ballet is extremely well cast, and gets the best out of all the dancers. Miranda Weese, in her first dance with Damien Woetzel, went from a sunny, youthful performance when last I saw it to one more contralto in tone, darker and with weight. And it could again be sunny the next time we see it. The ballet greedily soaks up whatever meaning the dancers pour on it, and this cast happily obliged. They didn’t “eyebrow dance”, and though we only half watch the steps, they don’t half do them. They show them clearly, bring them to life, and live through them. It’s an abstract style of drama specific to NYCB, perhaps even specific to this ballet, I don’t think we’d see it anywhere else.

In her beautiful final pas de deux, Wendy Whelan is so entranced with its still, swimming motions as Nilas Martins gently supports her that she takes us with her into that aqueous Elysium. You can ask no more from a ballerina than for her to project her fantasy out to us, and the magic that sometimes eludes Whelan in more rigidly classical roles comes full force here. She is exquisite. Hübbe looks better than he has in a long time. I recently saw a telecast of his James in La Sylphide from the early 90s at the Royal Danish Ballet. It was so good it made one regret that he left the Royal Danish Ballet, there are precious few roles at NYCB that can use of his romanticism. This role does, and lets us see the dancer he could be.

And so it went with this rich cast, who not only danced with their partners, but as a whole completely in concert. The cast differentiated between the two sections, as it has been distinguished, the public and the private, or as Balanchine was said to have explained, [Off the top of my head. . .]“In the first section, they are dancing. In the second section, it’s their souls.” Still, the level of intensity was higher this performance. One usually spends the first section interested in who these people are in their silvery chamber. Whose home is it? What do they do, how do they know each other? The atmosphere this cast produced was different, one started dreaming earlier, swept into the ether even in that genteel, realistic setting. The second part came as no surprise, like an opera where emotions heighten into song when words can no longer contain them, these dancers could no longer remain in gowns and slippers, the legs needed to be free, they needed to rise to pointe. The singers and pianists deserve praise as well, they made the waltzes as delicate and sweeping as could be.

It astounds me that Liebeslieder should retain its delicate magic, much the same as The Leaves are Fading. It’s a joy, but it’s a shock. They are fragile, they depend on scent, by rights they shouldn’t have survived. Though they seem diffuse, both the Tudor and Balanchine have steps and the dancers have to do them. The armature is there, in Liebeslieder it’s as strong as any other Balanchine ballet, and supported further by the conventions of social dance. But what of the perfume? I think there are a few answers. I haven’t seen Leaves often enough, but I’ve never seen a really terrible cast of Liebeslieder (that could just be my viewing, of course.) I think the dancers recognize certain ballets need more, they go into them sensing their duty to it. It feels that way with both those ballets. As importantly, both those ballets rely on “perfume” but the texts are so rich it doesn’t have to be the same perfume each time. There is room for Verdy, Nichols and van Kipnis to inhabit the same role, even to do it differently every time. Perhaps it’s like the thin branch that bends in heavy snow rather than snapping, these fragile masterpieces are sterner stuff than we think.

Irish Fantasy was on the same program, as was Christopher Wheeldon’s Scènes de Ballet. Of Irish Fantasy, it can be said that the principals, Woetzel and Weese, did their best to save it, Woetzel in a good part, and Weese doing everything she could to fashion a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. From the choreography, to the state of rehearsal, to the costumes (“Is it argyle or is it a skin disease?” tights for the corps men, a tutu with a tiny French Maid’s apron for Weese) it’s best to talk of it less rather than more. Scènes de Ballet retains its freshness even with a new cast of dancers from the school. Like Wheeldon, the choreography seems like a felicitous mix of Royal Ballet and NYCB influences. Wheeldon likes the style of his adopted company, but he’s not as rigorous in structure or musicality as Balanchine, there’s some of Ashton in him in that, and in his theatricality as well. It’s nice to see a work at NYCB that doesn’t look so “House of Balanchine”; his position as a non-native son serves him well. The school cast did an excellent job, the pas de deux done by last year’s leads, Craig Hall and Faye Arthurs, now in the corps. The scenic design by Ian Falconer is provocative, with its forced perspective and a barre irregularly bisecting the stage (of which Wheeldon makes excellent use) but I have a conceptual objection to it. The view out the painted windows is that of onion domes. If we’re looking at a ballet school in Russia, why are we seeing SAB training on stage? There’s nothing Russian about the ballet at all, the backdrop gives us the wrong clues. In a well thought-out ballet like this, a conceptual glitch matters.

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited February 19, 2000).]

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Great descriptions of Leibeslieder, Leigh. It's a great ballet for running off the Philistines, isn't it?

I was thinking about what you wrote about how one has to being a lot of one's self to Leibeslieder, and how that relates to what I wrote a few days ago about my own appreciation of the great variety Balanchine brings to the extremely limited palette of the first section.

Although Balanchine plays Leibeslieder very close to the chest, I do find the tantalizing hints of stories and meanings enough for me to hang on, I guess, and admire the beauty and mystery of it all. I find I end up doing the inward-gazing thing more for someone like Merce Cunningham, who, although I know he's a M*d*rn D*nc* person, is in his own way as much of a classicist as Balanchine.

Compared to your typical Merce work, Leibeslieder might just as well have detailed program notes and a running translation with subtitles.

I don't want to veer off-topic and start a Merce thread here -- just wanted to toss in my $.02.

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I think it's all in your definition of what a dream is!

I find the same variety in Cunningham's canon as I do in Balanchine's, some works are more direct, others more evocative, and that's what I mean by "dreaming", probably the same thing you mean by "tantalizing hints of a story."

It would be hard for me to chronicle anyone else's response to Liebeslieder, in truth, but as well as being swept into it, I was surprised at how focused I was while watching it. It certainly wasn't a diffuse state or a reverie! With every other thought it brings to mind, I never lost the stage for a moment. I think that's not me, it's the ballet.

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If you want to compare a Cunningham work directly to Liebeslieder, which is among my favorite works, August Pace would be a good choice, or another piece with its structure and also its elasticity: A series of duets (in this case with other things transpiritng) of certain yet mysterious import. Liebeslieder is, to me, most like Midsummer within the Balanchine canon. So heady you can just swoon in your seat. In the Midsummer, too, there is a change in tone between the acts, or at least a shift. The Cunningham work most like Midsummer is called Points in Space. Meanwhile, in another part of the forest...or universe....

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I always think of Liebeslieder, which would be on my all time favorite Balanchine programs, as sort of a Chekov play, with so many undercurrents and half-said things. I have only seen it at State Theatre, but can imagine it would have been even more powerful at City Center. I know the Royal Ballet did a version a few years ago, which was not considered very successful. Did anyone see it, and have an idea why? Mary

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I have a guess. The Alexander Bland book, 50 Years at the Royal Ballet, talking about the production says that the lack of success was a surprise, that it seemed to be right up the dancer's alley.

But I still think that though acting and dancing is right up the RB's alley - the style of acting/dancing required in Liebeslieder is just different enough from what they're used to that it gives false signals. I feel it conveys drama in an entirely different way than Ashton, for instance. Although you have to give full weight to the emotions in Liebeslieder the dance is still the crux. It's still more abstract than narrative. The emotional and structural balance may have thrown an audience (and dancers) used to another style.

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