As the curtain closes on the first section of Liebeslieder and the ballerinas rush away backstage, the ballet shifts from a public experience to a private one. It reminds me of that point in the television show Downton Abbey when, after dinner, the women disappear to another room and the men are left to drink and smoke cigars at the table. But instead of cigars and brandy, the men in Liebeslieder only take off their gloves, possibly grab an Altoid from the ready supply kept at the stage manager's desk, and use a tissue to dab the sweat off of our brows. We then reconvene onstage to talk, and to wait for our ballerinas.
The ballerinas, meanwhile, are working much harder. They rush to their dressing rooms, take off their gloves and shoes, change dresses, and hastily put on pointe shoes. Careful preparation of the pointe shoed-foot is a ritual repeated many times daily in a ballerina's life, but during this pause they have to wrap the paper towel around their toes, shove their foot in, and tie the ribbons as fast as they can because we're all waiting for them. It’s always a contest with the stage manager as the judge: "who will come back to the stage ready to dance first?"
After the last ballerina rushes to place, the curtain rises but the mood is changed. We see the couples in their same starting positions as in the opening of the first section, but the lights are dimmer, and the women are now wearing romantic-length chiffon tutus whose layers of tulle reach to mid-calf, and the aforesaid pointe shoes. Again we start dancing in a circle and lifting the women, but almost immediately Balanchine has the ballerinas weaving away from their partners and back again. You get a sense that this is a more tempestuous world, where the couples relate to one another and themselves in a more unguarded manner. Finally each ballerina starts to run offstage, her original partner catches up with her and escorts her off, and one couple is left onstage to dance a pas de deux.
While the pas de deux in the first half are danced in front of the rest of the cast, in the second half each couple’s pas de deux is danced alone onstage. This, in addition to the pointe shoes and exposed legs of the ballerinas, conveys a sense that the couples are finally able to express their true feelings—which were perhaps only alluded to in the first section. So instead of polite embraces and distanced waltz positions (one of the favorite corrections in the first section that we always receive is to hold the girl as far away from us as we can), the couples give each other full
The distinct characterization of each couple is expanded in the second section. The “young couple” that I first danced has two pas de deux without any large emotional outbursts or impassioned hugs. Instead Balanchine has the woman getting her hand kissed, or pulling her hand away from her partner before his lips can reach her hand. They seem to still be in that stage of a relationship when there is a bit of a cat and mouse game, and in the end they always leave the stage with the man in pursuit of the woman.
In fact all of the pas de deux in the second section end with the women being pursued by the men, perhaps to show that they are ideals never to be attained. Interspersed between these pas de deux there are two group dances, one brief pas de quatre and a very tricky pas de six before the last couple dances their pas de deux, which is the role that I dance now (and just danced with my fourth partner in the role last week.) After the chaotic pas de six, we enter the ballroom in silence and the music starts gently with notes from the piano that remind me of the distant chime of church bells, perhaps to signify the ephemeral nature of this fantasy world we’ve been dancing in. Our dance is both sweet and sad; at the end of each dance phrase my partner retreats from me, without urgency but with purpose nonetheless. It ends with us embracing in the center of the stage.
Suddenly (after a quick “1..2..3” which the pianist gives to cue the singers), my partner pulls away from me, I catch her with both hands, and we circle each other in a series of lifts and jumps that break the serene and love-filled end of our previous pas de deux. After brief solos for each of us, we dance a few final phrases filled with all of the storm-tossed romantic steps you could hope for. Finally with one last feverish turning sequence, my partner spins away from me and out the door, and I follow in pursuit.
I realize I haven’t spoken about the most important thing about this ballet, the music. The beauty of these songs, and especially to be so near the singers and pianists (who are onstage with us) makes this ballet one of the most pleasurable ballets I dance. I would like to say that I understand German and have a keen grasp of what the singers are saying, but unfortunately I don’t. But I don’t think that one needs to in order to be touched by them, and by the choreography that Balanchine put to them. Brahms understood the poems and Balanchine understood Brahms, so we are left with a ballet that clearly illustrates the beauty, mystery, and complexity of love.
But there is one final song after my pas deux, and the words by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) are quite perfect:
Nun, ihr Musen, genug!
Vergebens strebt ihr zu schildern,
wie sich Jammer und Glück
wechseln in liebender Brust.
Heilen könnet die Wunden
ihr nicht, die Amor geschlagen,
aber Linderung kommt einzig,
ihr Guten, von euch.
This final song begins with no dancers onstage, and when each couple slowly enters the women have changed back into their long gowns from the first section. It is almost like civility and manners have returned, and the impassioned pas de deux of the second half never happened. We are couples sharing a ballroom party together again, and these words tell us that all the “misery and happiness” that we tried to describe in our private pas de deux is pointless. The music, the art provided by the Muses, is most important, and each couple settles into their seats and listens as the musicians finish the last glorious notes. We then all applaud our private concert as the curtain lowers. In Balanchine’s theater where music is held supreme, this non-dance moment seems to me one of his most profound.