Profile of a Great Ballet: La Valse

Posted by on 04.01.2013

George Balanchine’s La Valse has been a staple of Miami City Ballet’s repertoire for years.  Not only have we performed this excellent work all across South Florida, we waltzed on the Parisian stage where the music premiered in 1920.  Since performing this ballet in a beautiful theater with such history, this Balanchine work has become incredibly close to our hearts.

Tanaquil Leclercq in La Valse.

Tanaquil Leclercq in La Valse.

I recently decided to delve more into the story and premise in order to have a more complete understanding of Balanchine’s vision.  He choose to create a plot within this 30 minute work, but as is often the case with Balanchine choreography, the story is complex and open for interpretation.  So, in order to develop my own interpretation, I started doing some research.

Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and La Valse:

Because Balanchine so often drew his inspiration from the notes on the page, I knew that in order to better understand the ballet, I had to know more about the two Ravel compositions that make up this Great Ballet: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and La Valse.  The music that makes up the first part of the ballet, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, was intended by Ravel to convey “the delightful and always novel pleasure of a useless occupation.”  Each of the waltzes have a different mood and style which is reflected in Balanchine’s choreography for four couples with dramatically different stories and interactions.  Ravel’s La Valse makes up the final section, inspiring the ballet’s name.  In his notes on the composition, Ravel wrote, “We are dancing on the edge of a volcano,” which has been captured in the choreography.  Each step seems to have more urgency than the next.

Well-known ballet critic, Richard Buckle, linked Ravel’s La Valse to the gothic theme of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of Red Death.”  In my research, I have not found any concrete evidence that Balanchine drew inspiration from this piece of literature, but perhaps more importantly, I did not find any evidence to the contrary.  Regardless, Poe’s “Masque of Red Death” follows a similar story line to La Valse and offers audiences, and dancers a-like, a wonderful context for the ballet.

Masque of Red Death:

In this short story, the master of mystery prose, Edgar Allen Poe, creates a disease known as the “Red Death.”  A prince, Prospero, is determined to fend off the plague that is spreading rampantly across the land.  He intends to await the end of the plague in luxury and comfort by sealing himself and his nobles behind the walls of his grand palace.  After several months Prospero decides to throw an extravagant masquerade ball to entertain his guests.  Always the theatrical host, Prospero decorates six rooms for the event, each in different colors in a very specific fashion.  The party begins in the east most room decorated in blue, the next in purple, then green, orange, white, violet, with the seventh room decorated in black and illuminated by a deep red glow.  The guests move through the party from East to West, however no one dares to enter the west most  room because of it’s erie ambiance.

At midnight a masked figure enters the party with blood stained robes.  No one dares to draw near to the figure as it travels through the six rooms.  As he enters the seventh room, Prospero pursues him with a drawn dagger.  When the figure turns towards him, Prince Prospero lets out a scream and falls to the ground, dead.  As the guests all contract and succumb to the disease, they realize that the masked figure is “Red Death” himself.  The final line of the story reads: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

La Valse's Three Ladies as danced by Miami City Ballet. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty

La Valse’s Three Ladies as danced by Miami City Ballet. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty

La Valse:

There are many parallels between the “Masque of Red Death” and the story line of Balanchine’s La Valse.  The curtain raises on three women who move slowly in unison through poses with extreme and bizarre arm movements.  These women set a mood for the ballet as the audience wonders who they are and what kind of role they will play as the story unfolds.  As they exit, a couple enters and engage in a spritely pas de deux, quickly changing the onstage atmosphere.  Following their exit, a second couple surges across the stage with a playful synergy, showing off large jumps that fill up the space.  The music changes as a third couple enters, again with a different temperament. Moving much more slowly, the woman interacts with her male counterpart in an erie way, drawing the audience into their world, while questioning the nature of their relationship.  The male kneels trying to kiss the woman on her hand.  She draws it away at the last moment and dances around him in a whirl of brightly colored tulle.

The three ladies enter again and lure the man from the third couple.  He suddenly becomes the center of the story.  The audience wonders about his fate as the previous couples dash across the stage framing him.  The music grows more dramatic as this section comes to a close.  Suddenly a woman in white appears for the first time.  The audience begins to recognize her as the center of the ballet’s story as a man joins her onstage.  They engage in a beautiful pas de deux with movements echoing the three women and three couples that preceded them.  Their dance ends dramatically as a dark figure appears in the shadows behind them before the stage goes dark.

The final movement is filled with waltzing couples whirling happily joined by the other characters that we have previously met.  We revisit the woman in white and her beau just before the music changes.  “Death,” represented by a man dressed in black, enters at the back of the stage as the entire cast falls to the ground.  The woman in white is left standing as Death lures her towards him with beautiful gifts.  He controls her in a wild waltz which ends by her falling to the ground.  She is dead.  The cast awakens to find the leading lady on the ground.  The ballet concludes with urgency as the body of the lady in white is hoisted high above the swirling dancers.

Seven rooms in the “Masque of Red Death” and seven sections in La Valse, each with a different disposition. The “Masque of Red Death” describes a grand ball with waltzing attendees, as La Valse includes lavish costumes and erie couples awaiting impeding doom.  And in both, the masked figure takes our main character.  La Valse is a ballet that will always remain close to my heart, as it is truly wonderful to dance this unique Balanchine ballet.




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