Liebeslieder Waltzer, The Red Violin, and Evenfall

The New York City Ballet on Saturday, May 20.

As much as I enjoy story ballets, there’s something to be said for dance unhindered by narrative or melodrama, dance for the sake of dance, and on Saturday evening, the New York City Ballet showcased that kind of neoclassical dance beautifully.

The program opened with George Balanchine’s “Liebeslieder Walzer,” set to songs by Johannes Brahms. The work is charmingly intimate: four couples, four singers and two pianists on the stage together. The women dance the first half in long gowns and heels before changing during a short pause into airy ballet skirts and toe shoes.

Ordinarily I’m not particularly fond of the waltz. The 3/4 beat usually feels frivolous to me, and too often the music becomes repetitive, a drone of oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah. Brahms, of course, is far better than that; his Liebeslieder Waltzer are astonishingly varied in mood and texture, and Balanchine’s choreography follows suit. Switching from heels to pointe helps, but even before the change in footwear, the waltzes held my interest. Balanchine creatively elaborates upon the traditional style, taking ballroom steps and adding balletic virtuosity.

The other two works on the evening’s program were new, commissioned as part of The Diamond Project, which supports the creation of new ballets each year. The Saturday performance happened to feature work by men associated with the company: Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief, and Christopher Wheedon, the resident choreographer.

Martins set John Corigliano’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The concerto is an expansion and reworking of the composer’s score for the movie The Red Violin, but Martins wisely chose not to dramatize the complex, lurid plot of the film and instead created an elegant neoclassical dance on a bare stage. The grand, crashing moments of Corigliano’s concerto provided ample opportunity for spectacular leaps and lifts, but my favorite passages (both musically and balletically) were hushed and spare. Two or three dancers would perform an aching adagio — intricate, smoothly acrobatic movements at a gracefully slow pace. The dancing was lovely, and the strength and coordination required to achieve that effect was awe-inspiring.

The program concluded with Wheedon’s “Evenfall,” set to Béla Bartók’s third piano concerto. The ballet featured Miranda Weese and Damian Woetzel, but as impressive as the solo work was, I enjoyed the corps even more. With “Evenfall,” Wheedon demonstrated a wonderful sense of space, a true eye for how the dancers should place themselves in relation to each other. Even some of the steps seemed created with a broad view of the stage. For example, at several points, the women of the corps faced the audience, bent forward and placed their hands flat on the floor. A single ballerina performing this step might look a bit ridiculous, but together, with stiff tutus creating a row of perfect circles, the effect was charming. It was as if Wheedon was choreographing not for the people in the expensive seats up front by for the people high in the balconies with a bird’s-eye view — people like me. Who could help but be charmed by that?

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