When the waltz took its first turns in the early 1800s, it met with shock and disapproval. Censure is bound up in the word. The German verb wälzen means "to turn, revolve, wander," but has also been taken to mean "to roll, wallow, or rumble down." Unlike later shockers‹the Twist, for example, or disco‹which saw space open between the sexes, the waltz put the woman securely in a man's embrace. "We could not help reflecting," wrote a 19th-century critic, "how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned."
Freedom‹to drift, to dream. Unlike the intricate Ländler from whence it rose, unlike the minuets and reels that were the standard fare of cotillions, the waltz was structurally simple. Its three-quarter step sequence (1-2-3, 1-2-3) varied only in turns, tempo, and momentum, and was uninterrupted by formal obligations to others. It could go on and on and on, and therein lay its sensuality. The sweep of the waltz, the distance covered and the intimacy achieved‹its consuming two-ness‹made it the great dance of intoxication.
None of these qualities were lost on George Balanchine, who at New York City Ballet paid homage to the waltz in ballets of unsurpassed invention. How could he not be impressed by this form? In all of dance it is second only to ballet in the way it codifies a time and crystallizes a sensibility. If classical dance was the most glittering symbol of Russia's Imperial reach for refinement, the waltz was the voluptuous blossom of late-19th-century ballrooms. Both worlds would end abruptly: With the Russian Revolution, ballet lost its Imperial armature; with World War I, the waltzing West lost its senses. Balanchine, born in 1904, saw the results of both.
Where classical ballet is essentially Apollonian, a ray of Sun King enlightenment beamed over centuries, the waltz is, in its heart, Dionysian. There is more of the moon to it, a lunar unspooling. Balanchine's spooky ballet of 1951, La Valse, is a midnight seduction, a dance touched with madness as if with French perfume. Maurice Ravel, who composed the music in the 1920s, associated that madness with 1914, the beginning of the first World War. Tanaquil Le Clercq, who originated the role of the doomed girl, remembered how at the ballet's dark turning point she began to dance "almost mindlessly." The waltz, Balanchine seems to say, is its own state of mind.
Nine years after La Valse, in 1960, Balanchine went at the waltz differently, and choreographed the unexpected masterpiece Liebeslieder Walzer. To Brahms's two cycles of 18 and 15 "love-song" waltzes, which together last an hour, he envisioned the sort of elegant, at-home entertainment for which Brahms wrote these pieces in 1869 and 1874. Pianists and singers onstage perform for four couples‹the women gowned in ivory satin and the men in tails‹who dance gaily, flirtatiously, wistfully, rapturously. Balanchine said, with his usual understatement, "What happens onstage is dancing and gesture and music." To the extent that everything happens in three-quarter meter, the ballet is understated. And yet, waves of longing, wisps of fantasy, glints of eros and Thanatos contour and shadow these dances. How to describe them, each one unique? Think of something between a snowflake and a sonnet‹a delicacy of detail teeming within the sterling rule, the eternal etiquette, of the waltz.
When the first cycle concludes, the curtain comes down for a moment, and then lifts on the same room that is no longer the same but invaded by twilight, elevated with emotion. The women are gossamer, wearing tulle and toe shoes, and the dances shimmer with the kind of lyric energy that animates Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (a work Balanchine would choreograph two years later). "In the first act," Balanchine told his biographer Bernard Taper, "it's the real people that are dancing. In the second act, it's their souls." It is the waltz that unlocks them.
Liebeslieder Walzer was a surprise success. Critics declared the ballet "bold" and "daring," for who would have guessed an audience could sit rapt for 60 minutes of waltzing. Walter Terry thought it "a ballet of uncommon beauty." P. W. Manchester saw a "reach into infinity." Even the recalcitrant Times critic John Martin found it a "constant revelation." When I was about to see my first Liebeslieder, I asked the critic Robert Garis what one should know about it, and what to look for. He shook his head, waving away such preparation. "Just look," he said. "Things will happen."
While there are those who still deem Liebeslieder Walzer a connoisseur's taste, Vienna Waltzes, which Balanchine choreographed in 1977, is nothing short of a blockbuster. When Balanchine had the idea for it‹a big waltz number for a proposed "Austrian Evening"‹Lincoln Kirstein wrote in his diary, "What can Balanchine do different from, or superior to, La Valse and Liebeslieder?" A year later, he would write of Vienna Waltzes, "For four seasons every performance scheduled was sold out; it brought into the theater a new public."
What Balanchine did was capture the waltz in its final sweep through the 19th century. Where La Valse is couture gothic, and Liebeslieder is microscopic‹the Old World in a water drop‹Vienna Waltzes is a panorama or history lesson, a ballet about waltzing and the phases it moved through, from the fresh forests and sometimes coarse delight of Johann Strauss the Younger (the first three movements), to the café society sophistication of Franz Lehár's Gold and Silver Waltz (from The Merry Widow), to the fin de siècle grandeur of Richard Strauss's fevered waltz from Der Rosenkavalier.
These five movements embrace many continuums: simplicity to complexity, innocence to experience, conscious to subconscious, entertainment to art. At the same time, jolts of allusion give Vienna Waltzes an inward spiral, a knowing and vertiginous weight. In the Merry Widow movement, the principal woman is dressed, of course, in black, and her brilliant, teasing manner, the coquettish withdrawal of her hand, recalls Odile, the Black Swan in Swan Lake. This creates a fascinating context for the Rosenkavalier movement, which sees a lone young woman, ravishing in a white satin gown, dancing an introverted, extended soliloquy that may hold echoes of spellbound Odette, the White Swan. When the stage is overwhelmed by a climactic corps of identically dressed women in white, their gowns rising like whitecaps on the wind and the ballet pitching and flashing in ecstatic apotheosis, the connection is complete: It's the swan song of the waltz era. As for that young woman so deeply lost in thought, a role made on Suzanne Farrell, she might be any dancer alone in the studio with the mirror. In her person‹drifting, dreaming‹ballet and the waltz are one.
Laura Jacobs is dance critic of The New Criterion and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. A collection of her dance criticism, Landscape with Moving Figures, will be published this June by Dance & Movement Press.