New York City Ballet romances dance through music

“So remain pious in your joy and be ready to face sorrow with courage,” wrote composer and music critic Robert Schumann in the epigraph of his 1837 piano cycle, Davidsbündlertänze (“Dances of the League of David”). Last Friday on the MainStage of the ’62 Center, dancers from the New York City Ballet (NYCB) performed Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” the ballet choreographed to his music by George Balanchine, the renowned founding choreographer and ballet master-in-chief of the NYCB.

This year marked both the 200th anniversary of Schumann’s birth and the 20th anniversary of the NYCB’s first yearly visit to the College. A result of collaboration between Bob Lipp, a trustee of both the NYCB and the College, and Sandra Burton, director of dance, the annual event began with only four dancers. This year, the program expanded to eight dances and a pianist, as well as an interactive dance lesson for the students at the local charter school in Adams, the Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School (BArT). According to Lipp, the NYCB dancers enjoy visiting Williamstown and performing for students. For this performance, former NYCB principal dancer Philip Neal, who retired this past June after 23 years in the company, returned to the stage with his colleagues one more time. Neal was joined by principals Jared Angle, Tyler Angle, Charles Askegard, Jenifer Ringer, Jeannie Somogyi and Janie Taylor, as well as soloist Rebecca Krohn. They were accompanied by pianist Susan Walters.

The performance was preceded by a discussion of Schumann’s work by Marjorie Hirsch, professor of music, and a video excerpt showing NYCB ballet master Karin Von Aroldingon teaching the ballet. Hirsch explained that the original work Davidsbündlertänze was rendered as a series of intense musical compositions that conveyed the emotional parts of Schumann’s musical career and life; specifically, the relationship he shared with German pianist Clara Wieck. Schumann, who was nine years Wieck’s senior, used 18 piano pieces to create Davidsbündlertänze, which celebrated the end of his 16-month estrangement from Wieck. More than just a composition of musical creations, the series was a theatrical adventure in Schumann’s turbulent life. Schumann had designated each piece as the work of either “Eusebius” – the name he gave to his meditative, placid side – or “Florestan” – his passionate, variable side – or of both alter egos.

Balanchine took Schumann’s work and choreographed a dance for each piece as one of the last major works in his life. The ballet premiered in 1980 at the Lincoln Center. Balanchine intended the original set to be a supernatural, imaginary place where the artists’ motions were exaggerated and fantastical. As noted in the post-show Q&A, however, Friday’s performance was unique, as it was performed on a bare stage. The lack of a set forced the audience to focus on the disciplined movements of the performers, whether in slower romantic chases with playful melodies or more tempestuous sequences. The dramatic poses of the men and the feminine postures represented the dialogue between Schumann’s personalities.

More than just simple dances set to music, Balanchine’s choreography transformed the ballet into a theatrical adventure in the turbulent life of Schumann. The women were debonair and graceful, each wearing a different colored dress, and the men all dressed in sharply tailored shirts. While their artistic makeup was complemented by their elegant movements, each of the four male and female couples conveyed different aspects of the intense emotions inherent to Wieck and Schumann’s personalities.

The first couple to come out onto the stage commenced the performance with a passionate and rhythmic struggle: The male partner incessantly chased after the female dancer. The female dancer resisted his advances, constantly twisting away from him. Her insistent but genial escapes, her beautifully twirling skirt and her graceful circling of her partner delighted the audience. Once the performance had ended, she walked gracefully off the stage as her partner followed – an image of denial that modern audiences may be accustomed to more than those that lived during the time when Schumann’s music was originally composed.

The power relation between the dancers constantly changed throughout the rest of the pieces, as did the combination of dancers onstage. While many dances were performed by a pair, some featured different combinations; one spirited dance began with three of the men, who were eventually joined by their partners. Frequently, the audience was also reminded that the performance was an interaction not only between the dancers but also with the highly expressive pianist, who moved easily from bright and vibrant to dreary and slow. Some dances, with a slow rhythm and synchronized, classical movements, reflected the depth of the lovers’ connection. During the quicker passages, the dancers’ movements displayed a dynamic tension. It was also apparent that the dancers were integrating their facial expressions – whether astonished, beatific or impassive – with both the pace of the music and the emotional weight of the piece.

Davidsbündlertänze was replete with the intensity of a passionate novella, combining the elegance of ballet with the emotions of music to convey personal connections between two people in the form of an artistic collaboration – both between Schumann and Wieck as well as a more metaphysical relationship between Balanchine and Schumann. The fluidity of the NYCB’s dance technique cleverly and passionately delineated the course of Schumann’s life, which had been bombarded with numerous obstacles. Ultimately, Balanchine’s talented choreography allowed the natural and physical chemistry of each couple to captivate the audience by conveying the ardor Schumann had for his lover and his musical career.