When I took my seat in the ’62 Center MainStage on Saturday night for the New York City Ballet’s Liebeslieder Walzer, I couldn’t help but be skeptical about what was in store. As a dancer, I am familiar with ballet classics such as Coppélia, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, which have well known plots even in the non-dance world. I had never heard of this ballet before, however, and I had no idea what to expect. The description in the program didn’t help alleviate my doubts. According to the “Scholar Notes,” the dancers would be dancing to love poems by Friedrich Daumer and Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, which were set to music by Johannes Brahms, and the resulting pieces were then choreographed by George Balanchine. Comforted by the huge crowd that packed the ’62 Center to see the show, I resolved to keep an open mind and to try to enjoy the performance despite its curious plot.
It turns out I didn’t have to try to do anything. When the curtain rose at 7:30 p.m., eight dancers – four women and four men – were standing on the stage, waiting for the music to start. The set was simple; there were only a few chairs on the edges of the stage, as well as a piano and chorus in the left corner. The men were dressed in navy blue tuxedos, and the women in beautiful light pink, flowing dresses. As soon as the music started and the dancers burst into movement, I was drawn in by their graceful steps.
In the first half of the piece, the dancers glided around the stage, either in pairs or as a group, their hands changing partners so fast it was impossible to tell who was dancing with whom. At times, two men would compete for the affections of one woman, each performing increasingly impressive and difficult moves until she chose a permanent partner. Other times, a couple would take the floor, dancing around gaily while the others watched with interest until they were invited to dance again. The beginning of the piece contained many playful interactions with the other couples, and the scene seemed just like a real ballroom. Balanchine actually said the first act was supposed to represent “real people” dancing.
In contrast, during the second act, things took on a more ethereal feel. The women changed into shorter tulle dresses and put on pointe shoes in order to represent the “souls” of the people who were dancing in the ballroom. The dancers managed to exceed the beauty of the first half, and for this part they hardly seemed to be connected to the ground. The dancers – even the women in their hard pointe shoes – hardly made any noise. In fact, had it been possible to tear my eyes away from the movement in front of me, I wouldn’t have heard anything, save for the occasional swish of fabric on fabric.
When I asked Jared Angle, one of the dancers of the New York City Ballet, if he liked productions such as Liebeslieder Walzer better than the more traditional ballets, he said yes without hesitation. He explained that the smaller shows allowed for a closer interaction with the others in the cast, and that everyone got really close while working on them. This closeness was evident during Saturday’s show, when passionate embraces and almost-kisses would cause sharp intakes of breathe from various members of the crowd. The chemistry between the dancers and the strength of the choreography was so powerful that it effectively represented the various nuances of love that Goethe and Daumer tried so hard to convey.
The only disappointment of the night was when, after only an hour, the dancers quietly watched the chorus sing their last few lines, and the lights went dim. The performance was over. I couldn’t believe it had already finished, for I could have watched them dance the whole night. Liebeslieder Walzer taught me that, no matter how well known the piece or the method in which it is delivered, the beauty of ballet will always show through.