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Molly McQuade

Jerome Robbins Celebration

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
2008 Spring Season

To coax an adjective from the name Jerome Robbins--in order to summon what he did, with peremptory concision--turns out not to be so easy, after all. (By contrast, "Balanchinian" has served well enough for years.) Is it to be Robbinsian, or Robbinsonian? Robbinsesque, perhaps? They all sound dreadful, like war upon the teeth.

Yet some adjective along those lines still seems needed, no matter how well or badly his dances survive a choreographer who is no more. For Robbins was distinctly different from his peers, and still is, however difficult it may be to define the difference precisely, now. Another reason also recommends itself: At its best, his work is all but indescribable, unusually so even in the typically transitory business of the dance. Indescribable why? Because of a guiding paradox: In dances by Robbins, feeling is found in form, but not in feeling. And so, formalism keenly and intensely becomes a sort of realism. In his case, we badly need a shorthand to designate a style.

For lack of an adjective, but looking for one, I went to see the Jerome Robbins Celebration at the New York State Theater, this spring: ten programs in nine weeks of thirty-three Robbins dances, from "Fancy Free" (1944) to "Brandenburg" (1997). This was hardly the first of its kind. For my notes scrawled on a New York City Ballet program from the Festival of Jerome Robbins' Ballets on June 7, 1990, say of his ballet, "The Goldberg Variations": "This is a dance about timeless good manners, hard work and pure fun--dancers as people. [Darci] Kistler was perhaps better than ever before. She made me see how romanticism is inherently debased--an emotional contrivance and a wreckage of will, of spirit, beside which she stands fully formed, independent." Particularly when read again years later, such a lot of opinions flung at a page must caution anyone who prefers an idea.

But this much is true now, as then: Robbins ballets are about "dancers as people." His dancers are not meant to be Maryinsky swans; not meant to be Nijinsky clowns (although Robbins' own portrayal of "Petrouchka" was much admired, in its time); they're not sleek, misfit princes; they are not neoclassical pinheads. Robbins (1918-1998), a self-described "schnook from Weehawken" who was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, divided his working life between ballet and Broadway, the coded and the classless. (His father owned a factory called the Comfort Corset Company, before it went bankrupt.) In either mode, classical or pop, whatever the steps, his vision of dancers moving onstage was formally vernacular. George Balanchine, his esteemed friend and colleague, famously proclaimed, "Ballet is woman"--not women, and not people. Not so, however, for Robbins.

Formally vernacular motion is a subtle thing, as no one knew better, perhaps, than he. Not only is it subtle, without fixed criteria; also, it's always evolutionary. Not for nothing was Robbins a creator who revised constantly. His dances, like his dancers, remained essentially malleable to him, up until curtain time. Remarked a Broadway detractor, dancing in the chorus of "On the Town" by Robbins: "He destroyed you in order to make you into what he wanted you to be." More affirmatively, a Royal Ballet colleague put it, "He didn't want you to bring [to his dances] who you thought you were." A very wise idea.

Moreover, Robbins tended to teach the leading roles in a new dance to multiple potential casts, without deciding on the dancers he would finally use until virtually the last minute. (This, too, may serve to emphasize the unusually evolutionary nature of his work.) His approach to composing was similar. Before finishing a dance, typically he would offer his dancers not just various honed series of phrases, in sequence; for any single phrase, he would also urge on them several tempting alternatives, deferring his choice from among these. As the dancer Edward Villella recalled, "Jerry choreographed so many different versions of particular sequences, and we never knew which version he was going to include in the end. What was even more irksome was that he often taught the same variation or role to several different dancers before deciding which person was actually going to perform it. We felt we were constantly auditioning." In this sense, for Robbins formally vernacular dancing had to be made and remade, sometimes simultaneously, again and again. (Think of Emily Dickinson's versions of the same line or poem, which dramatize the act of choosing while postponing it.)

Paradoxically, such methods don't betoken indecision. Calling the Robbins approach to choreography exceptionally "intuitive," Twyla Tharp, a sometime Robbins collaborator who has shared his predilection for the formally vernacular, noticed that "he believes there is a right way and a wrong way, not just a possible way." The right way was illumined partly by the wrong, I assume. Finding either, he found a dance, if he could.

It may be no coincidence that those ballets of Robbins that unfold intuitively toward a dancer's self-discovery are among his most elusively compelling. They don't tell stories, or provide characters, really. Instead, the motive of any movement is decidedly musical, and lyric. Still, a technical musical analysis will do little to expose or explain the movement. Such dances dramatize implicitly a theatrical arrival in each and every motion by means of which a dancer dances. I don't quite understand how this happens, even though I can see it in Robbins dances (and not in others).

Among those dances is a solo, made relatively late in Robbins' career for Mikhail Baryshnikov, who can no longer dance it. Yet "A Suite of Dances" (1994) is not merely or fully a solo, and it exemplifies, with a certain purity, how other dances by Robbins pursue his formally vernacular idiom. For with the dancer in "Suite" there also dances a cello, thanks to the cellist who sits onstage to bow it. Because we are asked to watch both the music and the dance together--or, both the cellist and the dancer--we are also encouraged to reconsider the ways in which dance and music might play together, and we with them.

But no one is personified. The cello is any cello, the cellist every cellist, the single dancer all the dancers we have known--no matter the particular alacrity of his (and only his) performance. We the audience are just as little known to ourselves, once upon a night. The indefinite articles of the dance prevail in this dance, to marvelous and chastening effect. Yet by its close, no ballet could seem more intimate or more pristinely, conspicuously declarative.

"Suite" was danced this spring for the first time publicly by Nicolas Le Riche of the Paris Opera Ballet. (He was welcomed by the New York City Ballet to participate in the Celebration, along with a few others, such as Julie Kent of American Ballet Theatre.) Le Riche brought a fine justice to the Robbins solo; he very nearly gave me my much-sought-after adjective. The personal musicality of his dancing seemed unbeholden to regalia of a self, as a musician might be unbeholden to anything but music, as heard; he felt the movement informally, so that we could feel it, sort of. Yet he also let us see it formally, at all times. He would stand like a person--without having to be any one, especially--and not like the etoile he actually is.

Although "Suite" requires technique, it is not about that, or about pretending not to need any. Le Riche could take a step, almost like anyone, unburdened, seemingly, of self-conscious effort. (A true test of Robbins dancers is whether they can, and whether they want to, and whether they like it.) Not least, by dancing with the music, instead of to it, Le Riche could beckon in return, invitationally, to its beckoning inventions. He was, in other words, an apt partner of Bach--partly because this dancer possesses the ability, as well as the desire, to imagine himself as someone who he is not.

Le Riche could do it; not everyone can. Some can, but only sometimes. Those who could and did, this spring in New York, so far as I could see, included Maria Kowroski and Damian Woetzel (always); the admirable Wendy Whelan (now and then), working even harder than usual; Sara Mearns, seductively, with a pugnaciously impassioned and witty versatility; the understated Charles Askegaard; a relaxed Amar Ramasar; and Janie Taylor, who is too interesting and too nascent, at the moment, to characterize fairly in brief. These comprise but a small portion of current New York City Ballet dancers, and suggest how uncommon it is to be able to dance Robbins today--as uncommon, maybe, as it is to be able to write about Robbins, in his absence. Can I?

When Taylor appeared in "Brandenburg" with Philip Neal, their pas de deux was all the more lovely for its expressive restraint. This restraint, more expressive than expression would be, means that Neal and Taylor could explore at first a dance of "touch-me-not." Yet, touch-me-not led to further steps that urged, "Please touch." Each of the two, though gendered, seemed like a full, likeminded metaphor for the other, as when they simultaneously bourreed away from, and then toward, each other. (Men seldom bourree in ballet; out of pointe shoes, hoisted on demi-pointe, the move generally seems awkward on them, and can't produce the vibrato endowed by a woman who is enwrapped, down below, in wood and satin.) Taylor and Neal parted ways, as equals, then reapproached as counterparts, though different. This is not unisex, but uniself, two immeasurable bits of the same thing. They also made trades; at times, she stood behind him, as by convention the supporting man in a pas de deux would stand behind the ballerina. She enfolded him with one leg, then another. Of their expressive restraint one could say, in the end, that it allows for the expression and the sharing of more feeling, not less. The Baroquisms accrete, then deliquesce.

For want of a story, the kind of pas de deux favored by Robbins prefers narrative tone over narrative. He's scrupulously, physically ethereal. His three pas de deux of "In the Night" (1970), set to Chopin nocturnes, eschew the mannerism of a choreographer who would ache to characterize--and thereby pin his dancers down. Whelan's high moment this spring may have taken place as she fought and kicked her way against her beloved partner, Jared Angle, in the third part of this piece: There's no mannerism in her, although there was everything else. The lack of mannerism never descended, here, into a quenchless anonymity where muscles call all the shots. In Whelan's case, in Robbins roles, muscles sometimes do that. She can hardly help it: She's more self-evidently tensile than any other female dancer I know, and tensile in every revealed detail, from the soles to the smile. You could say that Whelan keeps, at her beck and call, a rippling filigree portfolio. Sometimes, she's mocked for it.

Chopin is such a stock item of ballet classrooms everywhere, from Rio to Newport, Rhode Island, thumped and bullied by accompanists for the benefit who knows who, that it's hard to conceive of his mazurkas, waltzes, and so on as the makings of anything but mawkishly routine apprentice exertions, even when you know that you knew better. There must be nothing left to love. But one unforeseen boon of the Robbins affair this spring in New York: All the sweat has not offed that music. Far from it. Even though Robbins' signature work, "Dances at a Gathering" (1969), reappears regularly on NYCB programs, seeing it again this time in context--and, of course, hearing the Chopin once more--reminded me why and how Robbins must be Robbins.

The dance, as I realized for the first time in however many years, concerns a basic fact of life for dancers (and some others): the search for an apt and sympathetic partner. Why had I missed this, before? Although no leading story emerges from the ballet, as a whole, of courtship, friendship, or consorting, with conclusions attached firmly, currents of the story do recur, unmistakably, and--as would seem reasonable--they inspire some of Robbins' best choreography, ever: For to dance with someone, or another, or even with oneself as a partner, must mean all or nothing to a dancer. How could it not?

As Damian Woetzel proved in one of several damnably livid final appearances before his professional retirement, the life of the mind conspires warmly with any Robbins rhythmic gesture. Instinctually bright and swift in "Gathering," Woetzel also made me forget about his habitual virtuosity. Impossible?

"Gathering" brought out the best in Sara Mearns, too. Her variations included a glamorpuss solo in which, like a slightly flushed and tinseled diva, she "marks" the steps, by Robbins' choice, rather than dancing them full-out. As if enthralled simply by imagining the dance she is already doing, she can't bear to sully it by "working" it too hard: Much lies just ahead, awaiting her shaping of it. Like the ardent conscience of a choreographer, Mearns pictured what she did, letting us complete it if we could, as something incurably, ineluctably imaginary. I'm not quite sure why the New York Times chief dance critic Alastair MaCauley complained of "Gathering" that NYCB "has dimmed the ballet into near dullness."

What I once took to be a dance about life, in "Gathering," is instead a dance about dancers who dance to live. I skipped a step before, mistaking them for me. When they pair off, and then unpair, and seek refuge in a group, and dance alone, and pair up again, all the restless activity is not only about finding someone to dance with, but also about being able to dance with everyone as the best thing, ever. Robbins never reduces the dancer to a single role or a limited option, and never reduces the partnering male to the status of a glorified prop; the supporting partner also always dances, himself. Men partner one another; women dance together, with symmetry, or without.

Speaking of symmetries, before one performance of "Gathering," I was strolling near the New York State Theater garage, and happened to spy NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins and his wife, principal dancer Darci Kistler, descending leisurely down the ramp. Of course, both are long-term Robbins cognoscenti. He was circumspect, solid, elegant in a muted suit. She was teetering along with expert vivacity in perilously fashionable footwear and skin-tight garb designed to muffle all the arteries (in her case, this failed). As he let go of a few choice, guarded syllables, she replied with gleaming animation. The contrasts were evident. Yet they got on. Down they went, in an evening's exit.

They have someone to dance with.


In the lengthy spring Robbins shin-dig at NYCB, all did not wear equally well, of course. "New York Export: Opus Jazz" (1958), though an international hit in its time, struck me as fatuously native in ours. With only one or two exceptions in the ranks, NYCB neoclassicists did not adjust well to "getting down." They tried jazz like do-gooders.

Julie Kent's debut in "Other Dances" (1976) showed why Kent excels at the nineteenth-century classics of American Ballet Theatre, her home company. All waxen, sainted grace, she could not make the transition here from Giselle's limping throes to Robbins' blooded humanity.

Despite the gleeful, aw-shucks-ma'am gags of "The Concert" (1956), this likeable piece of Robbins slapstick went on for much longer than its own jokes could stand. It was simply itchy. "2 & 3 Part Inventions" (1994) I found dutiful and uninspired, full of priggish "etude" attitude.

"Moves" (1959), now rarely seen, and danced in silence, commands a cast of Robbins ghosts who happen to have flesh: dancers embalmed in muscular transcendence. Are they remembered? Foreseen? Imagined? Or, just dancing? "Four Bagatelles" (1974), another Robbins rarity, gave us him as Broadway Joe impersonating Bournonville with an abject, winking pertness, stilted despite Ashley Bouder's immaculate ballerina caprices.

And what of "The Cage" (1951), notorious and Freudian and campy and perverse at the time of its long-ago debut? Well, it is till campy, at least. But the shock value, if there is any, of assigning a ballerina to pretend to be a predatory she-bug, mantid-like, so as to seduce and slay many a hapless male mate, seems manifestly untrue to Robbins--a helpless midnight shriek. Although Janie Taylor almost made the insect matter, Wendy Whelan couldn't. The role brought out from her a mechanical and inconsequential cruelty.

Granted, its creator believed in "The Cage." Of his insect heroine, first danced by Nora Kaye, whom he once meant to marry, Robbins--who was gay--wrote, "She didn't ever play human or have human responses. She was much more terrifying & unearthly. She performed the role quietly. With a beetle's eyes & no expression. As one cannot read into [the] eyes or think [of] an insect she remained appalling in her surrenders, instincts, and actions--an extraordinary creature--not a ballerina doing ketchy movments." [sic]

Incidentally or not, Robbins remembered glimpsing, as a child, his parent's coupling. "It seemed that either he was attacking, killing her or that somehow she had managed to ensnare him in an embrace he would never get out of and she was devouring him."

As it happens, when his mother first saw "The Cage," she walked out before it ended.

Oh, well. I didn’t.

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