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Waltzing with the Past

NYCB revisits a treasured Balanchine work


Following the world premieres of two new ballets (Kyle Abraham’s When We Fell; Resident Choreographer Justin Peck’s Solo) and three films featuring these alongside newly-recorded performances of classic repertory and behind-the-scenes footage, the Company marks the impending return of live performances with the streaming premiere of a 2013 recording of Vienna Waltzes. Balanchine’s “last word on the survival of romanticism,” per originating cast member and former Principal Dancer Suzanne Farrell, Vienna Waltzes transports its dancers and audiences to the later stages of the Austro-Hungarian empire in a swirl of silk and satin to the undeniable pulse of three-quarter time.

Balanchine’s fondness for the waltz is evident throughout his career, exemplified by ballets like La Valse and Liebeslieder Walzer, and this affection finds its most lavish expression in Vienna Waltzes, a pure celebration of the decidedly charming form. The ballet scenery’s progression from a wooded glen, to a fin de siècle cafe, to a dramatically mirrored ballroom implicitly suggests the waltz’s development from a folk-dance derided for its “lascivious” contact between partners, to the height of Viennese social dancing, to a celebration of order and nobility, all traversed with increasing complexity in the choreography. Perhaps Balanchine’s particular interest in the waltz is not so much this history, but rather the particular shift in intimacy represented by the Viennese waltz in particular; prior to its heyday, social dancing was generally outward-facing. For the choreographer, the expressive possibilities of two dancers turned-in and turning around a dance floor were thoroughly in keeping with his long standing preoccupations.

Premiering in 1977, not long after Balanchine’s 70th birthday, Vienna Waltzes represents one of the choreographer’s late masterworks; as such, it’s a fitting ballet to mark the conclusion of this unprecedented time in the Company’s history. The opulent settings, sumptuous costumes, and 50 dancers in dreamlike motion utilize much of what necessitates experiencing NYCB on the Theater’s expansive stage. We spoke to many of the dancers featured in this recording of Vienna Waltzes about this beloved ballet.

JUSTIN PECK: With Vienna Waltzes, Balanchine created a world for movement to pass through. It's a mystical, otherworldly atmosphere, like dancing through a painting from another century. The ballet is so elegant, and particular, and finely crafted. It all culminates with the grandest of community waltzing, with the entire Company gliding on and on and on to the last moment. The ballet is a great representation of Balanchine's ambition, adoration, and envisioning of the kind of large-scale work that New York City Ballet could present.

LARS NELSON: As with all of Balanchine’s work, the music is first and foremost the catalyst upon which he is inspired to choreograph. Johann Strauss II’s dreamy waltzes immediately transport us to the romantic Austrian woods. Franz Lehár’s bustling and playful waltz just prior to the final movement provides a sense of wonder and mystery, allowing us a peek into a café containing the whole gamut of high-society clientele. Richard Strauss’s opulent waltzes build steadily to a dramatic climax that is timed perfectly with a stunning lighting change that signals the culmination of the whole masterpiece. The choreography is perfectly apportioned: understated and elegant at times and regal and splendid at others. While a feat to put together, this masterwork is truly one that the whole company looks forward to performing.

EMILIE GERRITY: Vienna Waltzes is incredible. I used to feel like I was either traveling through time or different parts of the world for each section of the ballet. I remember feeling elegant in those long dresses and jewels waltzing to this grand music. There’s no other ballet like it!

MARIKA ANDERSON: The first movement (G’schichten Aus Dem Wienerwald, or Tales from the Vienna Woods) takes place in a wooded area and represents young love. This can be seen in the subtle flirtations and coy hand gestures that, in my mind, resonate with youthful romance. Dancing with each partner in this section feels like a midsummer’s stroll in the garden with a young suitor. There’s something quite mystical and alluring about its innocent simplicity. Next, in the “Merry Widow” (Gold und Silber Walzer) section, the waltzing style feels closer and more intimate; we see more exaggerated movements and bends of the body. It’s like we’re in a night club in Victorian times, and it leaves one thinking that there’s more than just flirting going on. This makes for a beautiful transition into the final waltz (Der Rosenkavalier: Erste Walzerfolge). The setting implies that we’ve now migrated to a grand ball—the pinnacle of glamour and grace. We can see this in the stylized way that the couples waltz together. Hands are held with care and skirts are picked up and placed with a certain awareness; you feel transported to a lost era of enchantment.

HARRISON BALL: This ballet exemplifies Balanchine’s range and understanding of the human body and dance. The most nuanced moments are in simple gestures, such as a kiss on the hand or an invitation to walk alongside your partner, or the way the Merry Widow raises her champagne glass to her mouth. Balanchine takes the Viennese waltz and makes it his own. He makes it ballet, he makes it spiritual. I remember arriving in the wings moments before places were called. I stood in awe as I looked in every direction to see all the men and women of the Company looking marvelous. The air felt different. It’s like a fairytale backstage every time this ballet goes on. Onstage, it’s utopia.

JONATHAN STAFFORD: It truly feels like a tribute to the dancers of NYCB. It is one of the rare Balanchine works that is still performed exclusively by NYCB, in New York. The size of the cast allows many dancers to perform various roles in the ballet throughout their full career, which leads to a long and loving relationship with the piece.

SPARTAK HOXHA: When I first learned this ballet I was an apprentice with NYCB; being such a fresh fish in the pond, I was a bit nervous, because it was the first time I had ever been in the studio with nearly the entire Company and feared that I wouldn't be able to keep up. Little did I know Vienna Waltzes would quickly become one of my favorite ballets in the repertory to perform—and still is to this day, 10 years later. It’s simple and effective and pleasing to the eye when you have so many couples on stage moving in unison, making different shapes and patterns. I consider myself lucky in that this is one of the first pieces I danced with NYCB, because it really taught me how to work together with my colleagues.

JARED ANGLE: I started in the first waltz and learned it from [former NYCB Principal Dancer] Karin Von Aroldingen, who was the originator of that role with [former NYCB Dancer] Sean Lavery. It was so special to Karin because she just loved it—she loved rehearsing it, loved telling stories about Balanchine, and about the many different ways you can waltz, and how he used all of that. I enjoyed working with Karin because she wouldn't correct with words, she would get up and do the steps with you. It was so special to her that it became special to me.

BRITTANY POLLACK: I understudied Vienna Waltzes as an apprentice. I remember watching a dress rehearsal from the audience and being in awe of [former Principal Dancer] Kyra Nichols’ entrance in the last waltz; it was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever witnessed. Dancing in the last waltz with my partner feels like floating on clouds. It is very freeing to trust my partner as he waltzes me through different patterns on the expansive stage. One of my favorite moments is simply strolling across the stage with my partner, in what I imagine is a walk home at sunset following a lovely evening spent outdoors with family and friends. Now, more than ever, these are the moments that mean the most.

WENDY WHELAN: For me, the original dancers in this ballet were of the generation just before mine. I was lucky to have the opportunity to dance in the last waltz as an apprentice with [former NYCB dancers] like Sean Lavery, Patricia McBride, Bart Cook, Suzanne Farrell, and Adam Luders, who were many of the original principals. To watch them in these roles was a masterclass in Balanchine style and quality. I also remember how [former NYCB dancer] Carole Divet (Harting) would enter from downstage left wing with her gorgeous back to the audience as one of those diagonal strolling couples at the beginning of the last waltz. We all used to gather in the wings to gasp at her utterly breathtaking walk across the stage, showing off her ballgown like a fashion model. She looked like a princess or a gorgeous bride—she was the embodiment of Balanchine elegance. I will never forget that.

MEGAN FAIRCHILD: I have great memories as an apprentice of [former NYCB dancers] Miranda Weese, Margaret Tracey, and Yvonne Borree performing the lead female role of the second movement (Frühlingsstimmen, or Voices of Spring). I was one of the corps dancers and getting to share the stage with them was super memorable for me, so I always think of them and those moments when I dance this role.

HARRISON BALL: I remember learning this ballet in a very short period of time. I was brand new in the Company and did not have time to process the grandeur of the choreography, sets, and music until I stepped onto the stage, in a section where couples simply walk across the stage, as if they are gently strolling through an opulent Viennese garden during a ball. It felt like a fairy tale—the costumes, the beauty of the dancers, the music. Every dancer spiritually arrives, you can feel that energy. It was the first time I really felt like I was part of the Company. I remember when I was promoted I had a bittersweet realization that I would never be able to take that simple walk across the stage again; it will forever be one of the most cherished moments of my career.

MARIKA ANDERSON: In between each movement there is a quick change as we all madly rush to get our next look put together. “Merry Widow” is the newest movement in my repertory so I’m still very taken with the nuances and details of the costuming. The wigs are spectacular, but you must make sure to pin them in carefully so they don’t fall off during the fast, sweeping waltz circle. If I had to pick a favorite costume, it would be the white satin dresses in the last waltz. They are so simple yet stunning in design and silhouette. Holding onto the train just transports you to another time; it’s pure elegance. I can remember my first dress rehearsal with the costume on. It’s a lot to handle and maneuver and you still have to make it look effortless and beautiful. You must tell a story with the way you hold your skirt—it can’t just be pedestrian, there must be a nuance to it, how you hold the fingers that then hold the skirt. Learning to dance with these skirts and costumes is as much a part of the ballet as the choreography is. The key is to marry the two together and fight for that seamless transition.

DANIEL APPLEBAUM: Like any ballet with lots of costumes, there are always lots of mishaps. I remember I was doing the first waltz into the Vienna “woods” with [former NYCB dancer] Gwyneth Muller. We were one of the first three couples onstage after the principals entered and it's one of my favorite things to do. Her costume is just beautiful. You waltz around this tree, and this tree is just made of wires, so if one of her many layers of lace and taffeta gets caught on one of the little tiny wires, it’ll uproot the tree. And of course that happened to Gwyneth and me. So we had a split second to decide: we can either uproot the tree or I can just tear the skirt onstage. So that's what had to happen.

CLAIRE KRETZSCHMAR: I have some memories of trying not to knock the trees down as we waltzed...trying not to trip on the long dresses (especially while running!)...trying to hold the skirt in the correct hand, at the right time...trying not to run into other waltzers and stay in line...trying not to laugh at the men's fake mustaches as they slowly became detached from their faces due to sweat and movement.... All of these "hurdles" make the ballet funny as well as lovely to dance.

GRETCHEN SMITH: If I could walk out of the theater in my “Merry Widow” dress, satin heels, jewels, and wig, I would die a happy woman. The costumes for Vienna could not be any more perfect: the sweet, bubblegum-pink ball gowns in the first movement, juxtaposed against the greenery of the glen, so that we almost look like phantoms dancing in the night; the grandeur of the “Merry Widow” costumes against the eerie colors and lighting, as if we are on the Titanic, dancing under the sea; and, of course, the white ball gowns, tiaras, and diamond necklaces—everything is pleasing to the eye in the last movement. You feel like a 1940’s movie star in each gown you slip on, like something of a bygone era.

WENDY WHELAN: I remember hearing how Balanchine wanted a particular kind of satin—the highest quality—for the last waltz costumes. Apparently there was a dilemma because the cost of the material was exorbitant, and others on the business side thought it might not be worth it, but Balanchine was convinced that the sheen and the weight of this particular satin was necessary to give the full shimmering, flowing feeling of the choreography. He got his way in the end, and the overall effect of the satin gowns was exactly correct, making the last waltz instantly iconic.

ERICA PEREIRA: I remember the first time having a fitting for the last waltz gown and immediately thinking, “This is what it would feel like to try on a wedding dress.” It takes your breath away—the fabric and the way it’s made make you feel so glamorous.

SARA ADAMS: When we put on the white dresses for the final movement we feel extremely special. The dresses are absolutely gorgeous, and we each receive a different headpiece and piece of jewelry to make us feel unique. And the mirrors in the back, as well as the ornate chandeliers, make the whole stage light up. There is a special energy when we dance Vienna Waltzes; it’s like we are all together at the best party there is. A true sense of togetherness.

TERESA REICHLEN: I love the partnering in Vienna Waltzes because it’s one of the rare ballets where you get to be face-to-face with your partner almost the entire time. Oftentimes in ballets, the man is partnering the woman from behind, while both dancers are facing the audience, but in Vienna it feels more like you are dancing with one another and the audience is just a spectator.

GRETCHEN SMITH: To me, there is actually nothing more intimate than ballroom dancing. There is such gentleness, romance, and quietness to waltzing. You can’t look away from your partner's eyes. I have found that through rehearsing Vienna Waltzes I’ve come to know my colleagues and friends in a completely different and deeper way.

ALEXA MAXWELL: My first memory of partnering in the last waltz of Vienna was with my friend and colleague [Principal Dancer] Joseph Gordon. I will never forget the indescribable bliss of being swept around the stage until I was dizzy, but having blind faith that my partner would lead me in the right direction. This ballet taught me just to let go and let him lead. Before stepping on stage, I remember we turned to each other, smiled, and said, "We have the best job in the world!" The other dancers in the wing with us agreed. I only wish I could bottle up that feeling of pure joy!

JARED ANGLE: The last waltz is all about the Suzanne Farrell [lead] role, so I never even thought of the possibility of being in it myself. I had a moment in the wings right before I went on and I heard the music of the Strauss score. It was almost overwhelming; I was like, “I'm entering this sacred space that I never thought I would be in.” That has happened a few times in my career—when I was bowled over and surprised by taking part in the ballet, and the last waltz was definitely one of those special experiences.

DANIEL APPLEBAUM: In Suzanne Farrell's book, she talks about how she's really dancing with Balanchine in that last movement with the invisible partner. I think that’s especially poetic right now, because when I watch it, I'll be seeing somebody not just dancing with an invisible partner, but dancing for that invisible audience, dancing with that invisible orchestra, dancing for everyone at the theater who just wants to be there—but because of this horrible year cannot. There’s something really poetic about presenting this piece right now, because it shows the power of Balanchine’s works—based on what is happening in the world at large, the works and the beauty of the works can take on new meaning.

JENELLE MANZI: It's such an iconic ballet to NYCB—to have something this grand close out this digital season, it’s like an extension to open the next chapter. It's a really exciting time for us, we've reached a point when we will be in person very, very soon. I don't think there's any better way to have that transition.

TERESA REICHLEN: I think this is a fitting “farewell” ballet [to the Digital Season] because it is one of the few ballets that uses almost the entire Company, and the majority of the dancers are onstage at once in the finale; as we are slowly able to gather together again, we are showcasing this spectacle with the hope that we will be able to do this in person again in the near future.

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