In 1892, Loie Fuller arrived in Paris with an act. One of the great untrained who sought destiny onstage, Fuller had trod the boards in America for some years, a makeshift soubrette. One day, manipulating silk cloth outside in the sun, she was transported by the play of light. Fuller believed an audience would be transported, too. With the help of lighting designers and a chemist, she turned a bolt of China silk into a colored light show, yardage flaring around her body like windswept skirts, high tides, and higher emotions. The late Victorians, no strangers to the mysterious deeps of skirts, went nuts.

Fuller’s performance technique was narrow. Her titles were simple. Fire Dance. Lily Dance. Butterfly Dance. Serpentine. While she waltzed and skipped, sometimes turning in place, sometimes arching backward, the silk was manipulated with hidden handheld rods, exploiting the physics of waves. Her act was minimalist, existing only as metaphor. Here was Ezra Pound’s imagisme. Its first principle? Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective. Here was modernism before the term was coined.

The art dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, foundational figures in modern dance, took courage from Fuller. As she had, they claimed the solo spotlight and danced stripped-down imagery. But their subjects were human: pastoral simplicity, revolutionary fervor, Eastern ritual. Georgia O’Keeffe did her own Fuller with the painted flowers that brought her fame in the 1930s—petals and pistils hugely scaled into engorged abstractions. And before O’Keeffe, Hilma af Klint, unbeknown to anyone, was creating cosmic homages to life’s giddy biological drive. Female reach. Aesthetic arousal. The secret heaviness of conception. Fuller!

The dancer materializes in thrilling dimensionality.

A short clip of the Serpentine dance was filmed in the early 1900s, approximately ninety seconds long. (There are a number of permutations on YouTube, many of which claim to feature Fuller, though she was never actually captured on film.) Flats in the background depict an outdoor garden flanked by classical columns, and the film begins with a low-tech bat flying in—a cardboard cutout suspended from a thread and bobbing above the stage with stiff wings. It appears to be wearing white tie and tails. Are we meant to think of of Johann Strauss II’s operetta of 1874, Die Fledermaus (“The Bat”)? Or of Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel of 1897, Dracula? When the bat bounces down very low, the dancer materializes in thrilling dimensionality, a shimmering flurry that absorbs the bat, the ball, the bite into something elemental and eternal. As she goes round and round we see the orchid and the cloud, the anemone and the ocean, the volumetric pressure of desire and its voluptuous rise to release.

In the same year that Stoker’s novel was published, the Viennese dramatist Arthur Schnitzler wrote a play that went round and round. It was titled Reigen, which means “dance” in German, but most know it as La Ronde (“The Round”). More of a concept than a play, it presents a series of “hookups” that portray love as a carnal carousel in which barriers of class are easily breached (just as in Stoker, where the bat hunts freely along the cultural continuum). When Reigen was finally produced in 1920, moralists were furious. In 1950, with empathy and a far lighter touch, Max Ophüls turned the play into a cinematic confection, complete with a Master of Ceremonies in white tie, a man who holds himself apart and is played by the Viennese actor Anton Walbrook. He appears in the evening mist and tells us, “We’re in Vienna. It’s 1900.” He then asks, “What’s still missing for love to start its rounds? A waltz . . . and here it is.”

Walbrook was already known to audiences as the impresario Boris Lermontov in the 1948 ballet movie The Red Shoes. Lermontov, too, is a master of ceremonies, but he cannot hold himself apart when it comes to the ballerina played by Moira Shearer, whom he wants to promote and possess. Many at the time saw Lermontov as a stand-in for George Balanchine, the brilliant Russian-born choreographer who settled in America in 1933 and was famous for falling in love with, and taking inspiration from, his ballerinas. Indeed, when the movie came out Balanchine was on the fourth of five wives, and his company had just been incorporated as the New York City Ballet.

The world that Balanchine created for himself—one that moved from woman to woman, muse to muse—was itself a form of ronde. Come June 23, 1977, when the choreographer was seventy-three years old, he premiered a ballet that could have taken that line from Ophüls. “We’re in Vienna. It’s 1900.”

“Balanchine proposes an ‘Austrian Evening,’” wrote the man who brought Balanchine to America, Lincoln Kirstein, in a journal entry dated April 1977. Kirstein was the money man. He was in charge of keeping the company financially afloat, and because of that he was keenly interested in repertory. He writes that the program Balanchine envisioned was to consist of three works: his 1956 ballet to Mozart, Divertimento No. 15; a work yet to be made about Salome and her veils, set to music by the Viennese composer Alban Berg and tailored for Suzanne Farrell, the last of Balanchine’s obsessions; and a brand-new “big waltz number.”

Considering this waltz number, Kirstein asks himself, “What can Balanchine do different from, or superior to, La Valse or Liebeslieder Walzer?”

It was a good question. Both ballets are masterpieces. La Valse was made in 1951 to Maurice Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911–12) and La Valse (1920). Letting Ravel’s anxious dissonance and bleeding tonal colors infect a ballroom that’s neither indoors nor outdoors but timelessly suspended, Balanchine suggests a night of lunar madness, ominous yet chic. The ballet culminates with the collapse of an ingenue wearing white, mesmerized by a vampiric man who offers her long black gloves, a sheer black overdress, and a bouquet of black flowers. She is the doomed young thing first seen in Giselle (1841) and codified as the Chosen Maiden in Le Sacre du printemps (1913), a fated figure that is one of Romanticism’s refrains. “[T]he mad whirl of some fantastic and fateful carousel,” Ravel himself called these valses, “a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz.”

The waltz is always turning, open to momentum.

In 1960, Balanchine zoomed in on Vienna by way of Johannes Brahms, who adored the Austrian capital and settled there permanently in 1872. Liebeslieder Walzer was choreographed to Brahms’s two sets of “love-song” waltzes, composed in 1869 and 1874 and seeded with references to waltzes by the city’s beloved Johann Strauss. Their emotional complexity is a rising thing. Balanchine’s ballet presents the audience with four couples, the women in gowns of cream satin, the men in tails. They are enjoying an at-home musical evening, their flirtations and fantasies playing out in three-four time. The exquisite patterns of Balanchine’s waltzes, each as distinct as a snowflake and touched with metaphor, have much in common with the ländler, an Austrian precursor to the waltz that is storylike, courtly, a playful hide-and-seek in which the partners hunt species of eros, love, in their midst. The ländler moves in lines and circlets, paths that contain it. The waltz is always turning, open to momentum.

Expanding on that journal entry of April 1977, Kirstein discusses issues of repertory, whether it wouldn’t be better to revive loved-but-lost Balanchine ballets like L’Errante (1933) or The Seven Deadly Sins (1958). Everyone who had seen L’Errante wanted it back. But Balanchine, Kirstein reports, “feared that Errante with its Loie Fuller veils and rainbow lights might seem old-fashioned.” It’s fascinating that Balanchine’s thoughts leapt immediately to Fuller. Errante means “wandering.” The word waltzen means “to turn, to revolve, to wander.”

The map of Balanchine’s life once he left Russia in 1924 and until he finally settled into the New York City Ballet in 1948 may read as a kind of wandering, but his life as an artist was made of circles: the revolving of the repertory, the return to old ballets, the rethinking and recalibration of steps and phrases. To the dismay of his audience, for instance, Balanchine pared back the iconic Apollon musagète, his breakthrough of 1928. Again and again he rechoreographed Stravinsky’s Le Baiser de la fée (based on heartbroken melodies by Tchaikovsky), trying to find the right form for its story of a child kissed into art and thus frozen out of a normal life—his story. And despite the astonishing breadth of his repertory, it was dominated by what one might call the waltz step of desire–love–loss. In fact, this was a vortex Balanchine needed. The centrifugal pull of the waltz, its three-four time as self-generating as the tide, rolling and turning, drawing one in and under, was pure energy.

Open the Balanchine catalogue to the year of his first recorded ballets, 1920, when he was sixteen and still a student at the Petrograd Theater School (formerly the Imperial Theater School), and you have a duet to Fritz Kreisler’s waltz “Schön Rosmarin” and a solo for Alexandra Danilova to a waltz by Johann Strauss. In 1922 comes Valse triste, the ballet of doom that Balanchine co-choreographed with Lidia Ivanova, who died tragically in 1924. In 1923, for the first evening of the Young Ballet, Balanchine choreographed one of the waltzes from Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, music he returned to in 1951. Waltzes are everywhere, some of them composed by Balanchine himself.

And then there are skirts. In the world of ballet we stop thinking of tutus as skirts because they are costumes, confections, clouds of tulle, the bells of Notre Dame muffled in mist, abstractions as starched as Elizabethan ruffs or as flat as Saturn’s ring. They too are circles. Balanchine, born in 1904 and a toddler during the final decade of long dresses, was part of the last generation of children to hang onto and hide in mama’s skirts. He was always attentive to them. Certainly he knew that one of the reasons Regency columns gave way to the Belle Époque hourglasss, its hemispheric skirts requiring twelve-plus yards of fabric, was for freedom of movement in the waltz.

Of the three ideas Balanchine mentioned to Kirstein for his 1977 Austrian evening, he went with just one—the “big waltz number.” Vienna Waltzes is panoramic, a five-part ballet set to waltzes dating from 1848 to 1911 and moving from innocence to experience. The first three parts, or movements, are set to familiar pieces by Johann Strauss II. “Tales from the Vienna Woods” (1868) takes place outdoors, perhaps in a palace park, where young ladies and officers engage in a number of dances; the women are gowned in soft pink and satin slippers with heels. One young woman weaves among the couples, uncertain yet hopeful. “Voices of Spring” (1885) follows, a distillation of the amorous season, the kind of divertissement seen at the theater, titillating to men in their boxes; here the women are on pointe and wear knee-length spring-green tutus. The third movement, “Explosions-Polka” (1848), is a romp for four couples, raucous and naughty.

In 1910, the Edwardian era ended with the death of King Edward VII. In 1914, the curtain rang down on the Old World when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria led to the first machine-age war. And so the ballet’s last two parts are set to fin de siècle works: the “Gold and Silver Waltz” from Franz Lehár’s 1905 operetta The Merry Widow and a suite of waltzes from Richard Strauss’s elegy for an era, his 1911 opera Der Rosenkavalier.

The waltz, he seems to say, is woman.

Like “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” the Lehár movement has a hint of story, that of the widowed Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo Danilovitsch, who meet again at Maxim’s after many years. “Der Rosenkavalier: Erste Walzerfolge” is set in a shadowed ballroom and begins with a wandering female solo that is a kind of corridor, one ending in brilliant illumination and a massed whirl of dancers. In both movements, the women now dressed in trailing ballgowns, the reach down for their skirts and the manipulation of the material—whether draped over the forearm or held aloft in the hand—is part of the dance design. Karinska’s white satin gowns for “Rosenkavalier,” cut low in the back with very long trains, are masterpieces of construction. And they need to be, for as the movement builds Balanchine unleashes a Fulleresque coup de théâtre, sending miles of silk whorling and cresting to Strauss’s symphonically scaled strings. The waltz, he seems to say, is woman.

Of these five sections, “Explosions-Polka” gets the least attention, perhaps because it is quite short and is not romantic. Kirstein called it a palate cleanser. But as always with Balanchine, structure speaks. The polka is positioned dead-center in the ballet, as if between two legs, and the women are in dishabille, wearing corsets and only the briefest expression of skirts. We might be at a private party après theater (the dancers mime opera glasses) or in a music-hall dressing room, places where the classes cross as in La Ronde. The men are exaggerated dandies in high collars and striped pants, the women putting them through their paces. Lest we miss Balanchine’s point about what’s going on, he has the girls hopping around in second-position plié, legs open and the men diving through. As for the explosions in the title, well, this waltz was composed for the benefit concert “Lust-Explosionsfest,” which celebrated a new form of gunpowder. The double entendre is obvious.

Placing the most overtly sexual movement at the center of the ballet allows the viewer to sense a progression that’s more interesting than a mere historical sweep. There’s springtime youth and lightness in the first two movements; the fourth movement presents the older, wiser love of Hanna and Danilo—a sensuous late-day fulfillment. But what is happening in the final movement, with its young woman who waltzes oddly alone and unseeing?

The first four years of the 1970s were unhappy ones for Balanchine. In 1969, Suzanne Farrell, his longtime muse, married the young corps dancer Paul Mejia just as Balanchine was leaving his wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq, to be free for Farrell. When the couple came to an impasse with Balanchine (The Red Shoes redux), they quit the company, eventually joining Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century in Brussels. Yet in the years she was in Europe, if you opened an American magazine there was Farrell, twirling in a print ad for Nina Ricci’s perfume L’Air du Temps, her floating skirts filling the page. Farrell was “in the air” everywhere.

In 1974, Balanchine made a distinctly avant-garde work called Variations for a Door and a Sigh, which one can read as a subliminal response. Set to an electro-acoustical score by Pierre Henry, it is a uniquely static pas de deux that draws from experimental films of the 1920s, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Pandora’s Box (1929)—the woman in the ballet, Door, wears the sharp black bob of Lulu in the latter movie. Fixed to her waist is a deflated circus tent of a skirt that will soon fill the entire stage space. Rigged with unseen ropes, it draws up and drops down in great folds into which the helpless male dancer, Sigh, finally disappears: skirts as man-eating nether-realm.

Farrell returned to the company in 1975. In November of that year, for the Chicago Lyric Opera, Balanchine choreographed the dances in a production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. In January 1976, he revisited a previous setting of the Gluck dances he’d done for the Hamburg State Opera in 1963, reworking them into Chaconne, a ballet featuring Farrell and Peter Martins as Blessed Spirits in a space of Elysium blue. Though Balanchine had choreographed his definitive Orpheus in 1948—music by Igor Stravinsky, scenery by Isamu Noguchi—he was clearly still thinking about the myth, only now he was going further back, to the 1930s and his thirties, the wandering years that saw some of his most inventive works.

“I remember one scene with what looked like actual trees with roots hanging down,” writes the composer Elliott Carter in I Remember Balanchine, describing Balanchine’s 1936 production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice at the Metropolitan Opera, with designs by Pavel Tchelitchew. “The underworld was a whole forest of roots and trees. You could see the trunks of the trees halfway up the stage. It was extraordinary.” In fact, birch trunks had been shipped in from Connecticut. It was a spectacle, and Carter was one of the few who loved it, a coterie that included Kirstein and the writer Glenway Wescott. The critics tore the production to bits, much as the Bacchantes do Orpheus.

“Balanchine visualized inventions in his brain ahead of time,” explains Jacques d’Amboise in his memoir I Was a Dancer (2011):

Using the music as a blueprint, his imagination built an entire structure before he invented a single step on his dancers. On many occasions, he described the scenery, the lighting, the order and narrative of his ballets before any sets were built, or even scenic artists hired.

Vienna Waltzes, d’Amboise tells us, was one of those ballets. According to the nycb ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy, Balanchine had a vision of its framework at least a year before work began, right down to the number of trees and their metamorphosis through the ballet (in which case Kirstein’s journal entry logically should have been dated a year earlier).

These dark roots pull away and reveal five white root formations that hang like chandeliers.

The scenery by Rouben Ter-Arutunian incorporates perhaps the most successful aspects of that 1936 Balanchine–Tchelitchew production—“there must be five trees,” Balanchine insisted—but this time the vision is elegantly resolved, an organic transformation from scene to scene that spells descent. The Vienna woods are created somewhat literally with five London plane trees made of wire and transparent netting, green-dappled and translucent; dancers in the first movement cavort among them. To open space for the following Strauss II numbers, the two trees in the foreground lift into the fly. In preparation for “Gold and Silver,” the remaining trees and greenery rise to reveal curving black roots that form the Art Nouveau swags and sinuous tendrils of Maxim’s—marvelous! For the fifth movement these dark roots pull away and reveal five white root formations that hang like chandeliers over a cavernous ballroom, a blue darkness reflected in a backdrop of mirrors. It is a setting where Eros and Thanatos might dance.

The opera Der Rosenkavalier is about love and age, about the older lover—though still gripped by desire—releasing the younger to his or her own generation. Balanchine, forty-one years older than Farrell, had released her. But in Holding On to the Air, Farrell’s memoir of 1990, she writes that in the weeks before Balanchine got to the Rosenkavalier waltzes, which she was to be part of, she noticed that her usual partners were already dancing in other movements. In rehearsal, Balanchine said she would “do without, or almost.” In a solo of exquisite rapture, Farrell enters the empty shadowy space and begins waltzing with someone invisible, moving along a winding path, reaching upward, fainting backward, often averting her eyes or shrouding them with a forearm, a hand, the heavy train of her skirt. She barely notices a young man who intermittently partners her.

“At each performance I felt a gentle push from behind as my music began,” writes Farrell. “It was as if George and I went onstage together, and I could feel him following me with his eyes.”

Onstage together—in the underworld of Orpheus. Only it is the woman, Farrell, who retrieves the loved one, leading and not looking. And it is the man, Balanchine, who sees and follows. How strange this role reversal, as if his life is in her hands, as if at least here they can be coupled. And how gorgeous the Orphean passage, absorbed into the grandeur that follows, the flashing rise and fall of twenty-five couples, the centrifugal pull of Strauss’s momentous waltz turning the women’s skirts, white as Himalayan icecaps, into ecstatic swells, obliterating and infinite.

Vienna Waltzes was back in repertory at nycb last fall with a number of casts. It is not a ballet with tricky technical challenges, but the tonal ones are formidable. Some of the tone derives from decorum: the waltzing has to be correct and effortless. Karin von Aroldingen, who was the original lead in the first movement, said Balanchine was insistent that the shoulder line be kept level throughout, no up-and-down motion allowed. The dancing should glide on an air cushion of delicacy and ardor in equal parts. (For an example of the chug-a-lug variety, take a look at the opening ball in Martin Scorsese’s film The Age of Innocence.) Balanchine also worked closely with the men playing young officers, hoping to inculcate the stiffer arms that were a military norm (he ultimately gave up).

I was eager to see Ashley Laracey as the lead in “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” One of the rare dancers today with a nineteenth-century glow, she’s a skylark, slight but with a sustained song. And yet, perhaps because she is so fine-boned, the moment of poignant stillness, when she places her face before the audience, did not project. Claire Kretzschmar, larger and more athletic, turned out to be more vivid and satisfying. In “Voices of Spring” Megan Fairchild gave a pristine reading of the role made for Patricia McBride, a soubrette of soft inflections and sharp accents. Fairchild possesses sweetness and sterling technique, but here she needs a bit more wit of the wood sprite. Her partner, Anthony Huxley, had the role in his pocket. In “Explosions-Polka,” the good-time girls seemed to me too hard. Just because the women are knowing doesn’t mean they are tough.

A tipped-up chin. A sidelong glance. She’s all inflection.

“Gold and Silver”—what a waltz. In 1977, it was Kay Mazzo in black satin and Peter Martins in white jacket, red trousers, and a red sash (the same uniform Omar Sharif wears to the ball in the 1968 movie Mayerling). Aroldingen took over the role from Mazzo, and you can see her dancing it on YouTube, a performance filmed in the year of Balanchine’s death, 1983. Set at Maxim’s, the atmosphere is rich and the sensibility ultra-sophisticated. Lehár’s dreamy waltz, marked Allegro moderato (moderately fast), is not unlike Offenbach’s aria “Scintille, diamant,” a waltz marked Andante poco mosso (with forward motion, but not too fast). Both are deeply luxe, ember warm. The woman who dances the wealthy widow Hannah should move as in dressage, on a taut but not tight rein. A tipped-up chin. A sidelong glance. She’s all inflection.

Mira Nadon, who is facially reminiscent of Farrell and has a technique similarly freehand, looked wonderful in the gown. But she was a bit swoop and sashay, a little too Black Swan. Miriam Miller, a statuesque Grace Kelly blonde, was more contained, if perhaps a degree too cool. In the game of love, getting the temperature right is no small thing. Miller could use more sparkle, Nadon more restraint.

The ballet’s coveted role, its moonflower, is in “Der Rosenkavalier”: the young woman who waltzes “almost” alone. Farrell, very tall, originated the role, but in her wake it hasn’t seemed to require height so much as weight—the lyre carried by both Orpheus and Terpsichore, the sense of journey. Stephanie Saland can be seen online, dancing the role in a clip from 1993. Where Farrell is tender, Saland is grave. Both are monumental.

Of the three leads I saw in “Rosenkavalier,” none was properly weighted. Sara Mearns should be perfect plumb, but she powered her way through with gestures too emphatic, too rough against the role’s soft inner contours. Sterling Hyltin, who retired in December, danced it for the first and only time, lightweight but touching. The ascendant Unity Phelan is also new to the role but already brings her own accents. She danced with clarity and sweep, though not yet with the knowledge of where she is or where she’s going. The lighting gives a hint. When a final flurry of turns takes the ballerina into the wings, her solo over, those five white chandeliers shock on: the ballroom is ablaze, filling with dancers in white tie and white silk, diamonds glittering. The underworld disappears into the Old World, which waltzes into history before our eyes.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 7, on page 15
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