Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
"Vienna Waltzes," the extravagant new, hour-long ballet by George Balanchine given its Washington premiere by the New York City Ballet at the Kennedy Center Wednesday, ends with one of the most mesmerizing spectacles ever seen on a dance stage.
To the lusciously overwrought strains of Richard Strauss' "Rosenkavalier" waltzes, a huge blur of couples is whirling in three-quarter time. Rouben Ter-Arutunian's art nouveau ballroom setting is backed by giant mirrors which multiply the space to infinity and expand the dancing throng to seeming hundreds.
The dancers are in elegant but stark formal wear, the men in black, the women in full white skirts that billow, as they turn, into a fantastic regatta of flying silk.
The scene is so visually stunning it leaves you breathless, and the eddying swirl of the dancers, the accelerating circulation of the waltz music, the blaze of the ballroom chandeliers are positively dizzying.
When the whole thing is over, though, a first encounter can leave you almost as much puzzled as dazzled. This is clearly a major Balanchine endeavor, his tribute to a city he loves, to a musical tradition that's in his blood, and to a dance archetype he has spent a good part of his career elaborating in other forms.
It's also an unconventional ballet, even for Balanchine, who knows no end of surprises. Only one of its principal divisions, for instance -- the "Voices of Spring" Waltz by Johann Strauss the Younger, led by Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson -- is danced "on point," with the women in toe shoes; all the other sections have the women in heels.
The closing waltz sequence from "Rosenkavalier," with its wonderfully mysterious solo passages for Suzanne Farrell dancing alone in reverie, and the ineffably nostalgic opening sequence to "Tales From the Vienna Woods," led through the Wienerwald scenery so affectingly by Karin von Aroldingen and Sean Lavery, are such strokes of Balanchinian genius that their artistic worth is never in doubt.
In between, however, it is hard to shake an intermittent impression of superficiality, of a too easy appeal to the waltz mystique -- the "Merry Widow" sequence, for instance, to waltzes by Lehar, though enchantingly performed by Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins, seems to evaporate choreographically before anything much has happened, and the frippery of the "Explosions Polka," featuring Sara Leland and Bart Cook, not only feels more like Offenbach's Paris than Vienna, but also seems too vulgarly out of key with the rest.
So what is one to make of the whole, then? Is it a masterpiece, or a sleight-of-hand ballet, or something of both, perhaps?After two viewings (one in New York), I don't have the answer to these questions.
What's undeniable is that the first lulling lovers' stroll, as von Aroldingen leans her head against Lavery's shoulder while the zither tinkles away, is pure magic; that Farrell's self-absorbed delirium in the last sequence, interrupted now and then by a gravely attentive Jean Pierre Bonnefous, is inexpressibly moving and that the ballet as a whole captures much that lies at the heart of the Viennese waltz.