Balanchine’s Dark Waltzes: Can Love Suffice?

“Liebeslieder Walzer,” choreographed by George Balanchine in 1960 for four male-female couples, has always provoked drastically opposed reactions. For some, this is a deeply beloved work, perhaps the most revered of all Balanchine’s creations for what it says about the human heart. For others, it’s an old-fashioned bore.

“Liebeslieder,” which returns to New York City Ballet on Feb. 27 for just three performances, has no wow effects, no orchestral music (it’s danced to art songs) and provides no particular acrobatic excitement. At almost an hour long, it is split into two parts; and it’s not unusual to see audience members leave at its halfway break.

They don’t know what they’re missing. For, when the curtain rises on the second half, the transformation of the stage world is shocking, thrilling, baffling.

In the first half, set in a large drawing room, the women are attired in full-length ball gowns, with heeled shoes. In the second part, the women are in point shoes and Romantic ballet dresses of calf length. The room has become a transparent husk. (In Balanchine’s lifetime, stars were visible in the sky beyond.)

In the first half, the style is ballroom waltz. In the second, the idiom is ballet — more expansive, and with many more lifts than in most Balanchine ballets. Balanchine observed that the first half shows us real women, the second their souls.

“Liebeslieder Walzer,” or “Love Song Waltzes,” takes its name from the two song cycles by Brahms that form its score, with two pianists accompanying soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone. Not all the loves described in the words are happy. Balanchine’s layered, detailed depiction of the conflicted feelings of his four couples — especially his four women — puts him on a par with the George Eliot of “Middlemarch” or the Tolstoy of “Anna Karenina.”

All the emotion is prefigured in the ballet’s first half, which often seems more densely constructed and tautly eloquent than its more vehement sequel. Certainly these four women are loved by these men — but can love suffice? Often the women need some degree of independence from their lovers, even if only for a moment.

Let’s watch one dark song from that first half. Those moments of separation develop a further twist, one unlike anything else in Balanchine. The woman keeps withdrawing from the man’s pursuit — because, it seems to emerge, he, not she, is the truly evasive one.

The German words, sung by the soprano, tell of the profound intimacy that used to exist between this woman and her lover — as opposed to the cold distance between them now. Balanchine’s waltz duet, however, tells a different story, in one continuous sequence, yet more unnerving in its unexpected developments. At first, the relationship seems relatively one way. (The words are “Quite fair and contented was I previously with my life and with my sweetheart.”)

The man (Tyler Angle in this 2015 video) pursues and entreats and commits, while the woman (Jennie Somogyi, now retired) is half responsive to his lead. At one point she even seems like the sail to his mast, her arms and skirts outstretched as he follows close behind. And yet she breaks away.

In the next phrase, he reassures her by offering his hand — three times. (The words are “Through a wall, yes, through 10 walls, did my friend’s gaze recognize me.”)

Each time, she hesitates before taking his hand. So, what’s her problem? She already knows him; why is she unsure about accepting his devotion?

He continues to hold her hand, even while kneeling to her, through a wonderful phrase when she circuits him twice, as if deeply touched by his devotion.

The downbeat of the waltz grows stronger, and she yields to it with her legs and back. But the words are “But now, oh woe, if I am with that cold boy, no matter how close I stand before his eyes.” At the end, she again breaks away, drawing a hand slowly down across her face, as if veiling it.

This reaches a remarkable climax.

Now — the words are “neither his eyes nor his heart notices” — she looks, twice, into the man’s eyes, as if testing the constancy of his pursuit. Then, still holding his hand, she bends her body under it, twisting to avoid full commitment. Why this doubt on her part?

Next, as Brahms has the soprano repeat those lines — “But now, oh woe, if I am with that cold boy, no matter how close I stand before his eyes” — Balanchine turns the tables, though without a break in the dance current. Suddenly it’s the woman (this season, the role will be danced by Ashley Bouder and Tiler Peck) who turns to look into the man’s eyes; and it’s the man (Mr. Angle and Joseph Gordon this season) who finds this more than he can take.

He turns his head away; he even raises his gloved hand like a shield, barring her gaze. Yet again she breaks away; but now he stands still, with his back turned to her and us.

The drama of sight, seeing, is crucial in Balanchine dance theater: It recurs in many ways in many ballets, sometimes involving temporary “blinding” gestures. Often it’s the man who gazes at, and pursues, the elusive woman. And on the few occasions when the man’s view is blocked (notably “Serenade” and “Orpheus”), it’s someone else who covers his eyes.

Here, however, is a truly singular moment: The man, by stopping the woman from looking into his eyes (and into his heart) is surely saying “No, don’t go there; don’t try to penetrate my mystery — such intimacy I cannot share with you.” (Some “Liebeslieder” dancers have been told the man simply says, “Your beauty is more than I can take.” The German words, however, confirm a more tragic sense: The man is now putting a wall between them.) From the man who has been devotedly courting this woman, this is a startling thunderbolt.

Yet it’s all decorously done: They maintain the waltz. Even though the words are “neither his eyes nor his heart notices,” she returns to him; then, he to her.

On with the waltz! They end the song together, cheek to cheek. The psychological distance between them remains. They agree to live with it.

I suspect that here Balanchine is telling us something about himself. (“My heart is full of knives,” he once remarked.) In “Liebeslieder,” this image of the male withholding helps us to understand why this woman, and all her three female friends, keep hesitating before commitment. The women are the more openhearted; the men, however chivalrous and devoted, may be using ballroom courtship as a way of screening their full characters. This is a ballet about adult love and its attendant shadows: tender, often rapturous, exceptionally poignant.

Alastair Macaulay was the chief dance critic of The Times from 2007 until 2019. @AlastairMacaul3

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