Arts Review

Robbins at 100

Jerome Robbins wearing a birthday hat at his 71st birthday party (1989). New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The New York City Ballet honored Jerome Robbins, arguably the most important American-born choreographer of the ballet and musical theater world, with a three-week-long festival dedicated to his work. Six different programs with altogether twenty ballets gave a glimpse into the fascinating imagination of a man who made a point not to repeat himself too often. I did question certain glaring omissions of works that are sacred in my aesthetic universe, such as his late masterpieces Ives, Songs from 1988, which I perceive as his tribute to fellow choreographer Antony Tudor, who had died the year prior, and Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions, which he first choreographed for the advanced students at the School of American Ballet in 1994. Fortunately, many of the programmed ballets proved to hold up as stars that can still shine bright in anyone’s firmament even twenty years after their creator’s passing. While watching Robbins’ 100th birthday homage, I also listened and delighted in the sounds of the New York City Ballet Orchestra under the batons of Andrew Litton, Andrews Sill, Daniel Capps, and Clotilde Otranto. What a rare gift to have a repertoire of ballets—set to music ranging from Bach to many composers of the twentieth century—played with mastery and brio.

At the tender age of 25, Robbins made his first splash as a choreographer with a story ballet about three sailors on shore leave. The thirst for beer, adventure, and women brings out the primal urges of youth. Aptly titled Fancy Free, it must have been swell when it premiered in 1944 at Ballet Theatre. In fact, it was such a success that collaborators Leonard Bernstein and Robbins embarked on a Broadway career, reworking and expanding the ballet into the smash hit On the Town. Today one has to look at Fancy Free as a period piece or relish in political incorrectness, for it reeks of sexism and portrays sexual assault as entertainment. I find myself squirming in my seat at times, especially when the trio grab a young lady’s purse and toss it between them, leaving her to run from one to the next trying to snatch it back. The worst part of course is that sometime after she does manage to have her handbag returned, she happily joins the handsome sailors in the bar. Is their youth reason enough to excuse the sailors’ behavior? (I must confess that having seen the ballet recently with more mature casts is even harder to watch.) Does one’s inner conflict, fueled by recent discussions, make the piece more relevant? Has that struggle always existed for the viewer or was the piece easier to like when Robbins choreographed it? I wonder if the glorious dancing by Roman Mejia, Harrison Coll, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez warrants forgiveness. However controversial, there is still so much that works well: the clever set by Oliver Smith divides the stage into a bar area and the outside, yet it gives the dancers the opportunity to inhabit the entire space at any time. Assisted by Ronald Bates’s lighting, the space is defined by the direction one walks through a door placed upstage. A brilliant dramatic ploy is the imbalance of three men competing for two women and the resulting one-upmanship. The innocent scenes when the dudes (would that have been “chaps” in the ’40s?) just hang out together guzzling beer and flexing their muscles are endearing. Oh, yes, there is dancing. Three technically challenging solos show the lovable characters of each of the men. One is a firecracker with a sense of humor; he jumps and jokes and knows how to have a good time. Picture this: he dances and stops to announce turns by spinning his fingers while downing a shot at the bar; without missing a beat he continues his dance and eventually catapults from the counter straight into a split on the floor. Time with him will not be dull if you like that sort of thing. And after all the extra liquor imbibed, he even proves to you that he can still balance on one leg (with the other high in the air). The second sailor is a dreamboat, and with his lyrical solo he will take you away to a desert island and whisper some sweet nothings in your ear that could come right from the poetry section of this publication. With his hands behind his back, he starts his time in the light with a leg swing from side to side looking just a bit sheepish but then turns slowly with his gaze turned skyward. He swings his other leg dreamily as if to say “Are you coming with me?,” before starting a series of various slow turns leading to a faster pirouette. If you are not dizzy yet, he leaps away with buttery soft landings, catching himself in balancés, a swaying step in which he happens to emphasize the swing of his hips.

Jerome Robbins in Fancy Free (1944). New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Leg lifts to either side while walking evolve to being performed in a skipping manner. It is light-footed poetry. The motif of the leg swing returns, but now the sailor’s arms are held confidently behind his head. A sheep no more, he beckons his intimate audience to follow him with inviting gestures. He glides across the stage on his heels, he jumps over bar stools in the most dignified way and adds another few spins to let you know that excitement can be had in style without effort. And just to turn you around, he continues with another series of turns that seem to reverse on themselves before he arrives like a wave onshore at the feet of one of the ladies looking up at her with a smile that is somewhat self-satisfied and even more hopeful. No wonder the two ladies have a hard time deciding which one to pick. But wait, we are not done yet. A Latin rhythm makes the final sailor’s seat wave. With charm dripping from every extremity, the heatwave is palpable, and by now even the ladies are thirsty. So, is it the fact that one is prone to objectify the three sailors in the same way as they happen to objectify the women that saves the piece from utter datedness? Yes, Fancy Free is a guilty pleasure and definitely should not be taken as a modern-day manual on how to approach the other sex. Alexa Maxwell and Tiler Peck are the fine dancers being pursued.

On that particular program featuring other collaborations with Bernstein, is another problematic work. Robbins knew it was flawed and reworked it several times. A program note states that Dybbuk (1974) uses S. Ansky’s play “as a point of departure for a series of related dances concerning rituals and hallucinations which are present in the dark magico-religious ambience of the play and in the obsessions of its characters.” The dance is equally obtuse, and its moves are awkward. It looks to me that Robbins took on a subject close to his heart, but was too respectful of his own Jewish heritage to take the necessary liberty to let the work flow on its own. Cartoonish and contrived, the ballet might or might not paraphrase the play, but it is surely devoid of movement invention or any sense that motion could be expressive without gesture illustrating mime.

The most successful Bernstein/Robbins opus West Side Story still tours the world more than sixty years after its Broadway premiere in 1957. Robbins gave NYCB a hit when he excerpted a suite from the show in 1995 to program the selections alongside regular ballet fare. Dancers get to sing and fight and act; they demarcate the endings of various sections with a unison step and a short bow toward the audience. Since everyone knows the story of this twentieth-century Romeo and Juliet, the progression can be swift, and no one gets lost. What does get lost is character development and resulting possible emotional investment on the viewer’s part. West Side Story Suite therefore becomes too sweet too quickly. Nevertheless, the group dance scenes are full of vigor. Dance at the Gym bursts with exuberance; in the streets the pouncing rival gangs spell danger and for a moment keep this Lincoln Center audience on their toes.

While the Bernstein program might have suffered a bit for the very reason that it featured only one composer, it is Robbins’ mission for variety that keeps his work alive. He did not create in a vacuum and learned how to express his humanity from other choreographers and artists. It is likely that José Limón was one, but Anna Sokolow especially had a profound influence on Robbins. Concurrent to the festival at NYCB, the season of the Limón Dance Company at The Joyce Theater confirmed that truth in gesture and felt physicality are thankfully not only seen in Robbins’ oeuvre.

If Robbins’ best art is an expression of humanity, one has to point out that occasionally that art is encumbered and compromised when either balletic artifice or overly ornate athletic feats blur somatic generosity and resonance. Sometimes these shortcomings are due to the perfor­mance, but one could argue that the choreography allows for a weak performance to make the work itself look disingenuous. Such is the case in the precious Antique Epigraphs (1984) set to Debussy and the overburdened In the Night from 1970 with downright tacky lighting by Jennifer Tipton, Robbins’ afterthought to his Chopin masterpiece Dances at a Gathering, which premiered the year before. In Dances . . . , a work dedicated to lighting designer Jean Rosenthal, Tipton’s design does not get in the way, and Joe Eula’s costumes assign a color to each of the ten dancers. Joaquin De Luz (in brown) opens the ballet to the Mazurka, op. 63, no. 3. He stomps, he hesitates, then hovers and glides. His syncopations are the heartbeats of promise and his easy gait belies the fiendishly difficult sequence of steps he brilliantly executes with wit in his phrasing. Sara Mearns (in mauve) and Chase Finlay (in green) waltz dreamily before Tiler Peck (in pink) and Tyler Angle (in purple) get their feet on the ground for the next mazurka. The different rhythms define the character of the steps and the relationships of the respective couples. Nothing else is needed. Another dancer in an apricot dress (Lauren Lovette) enters for a bright solo, and thus Robbins introduces form in a seemingly formless accumulation of dances: male solo, duet, duet, female solo. Soon after, Robbins shows the progression of uneven numbers: De Luz partners Peck and Abi Stafford before three gentle­men partner with the two ladies. Robbins gives us a break from informal formalism and introduces tableaux of dancers. For a split second I agonize whether fellow audience members could misunderstand the scene and pull out their cellphones to take pictures. One of many memorable sections lets Angle and De Luz skip backwards in a circle opposite from each other. The circle gets smaller and smaller until the two men get to partner one another. After this brief encounter, the circle motif returns, and the men, enriched and happy, get to spiral away. After many other sections, Robbins—as if to surprise us—introduces another cast member, a lady in green (Ashley Bouder). She self-importantly gallivants about and briefly attracts one man, only for him to split after accompanying her across the stage once. With each change of direction, there is another man who is only too happy to get away from her. At the end of her solo she is by herself, and we are left to wonder if her isolation was cause for her late entry to the dance or vice versa. The Scherzo, Opus 20, No.1, starts out like an oncoming storm. It begins with a short solo for Mearns who rotates her arms like windmills and pierces the air with a quick succession of leg extensions. Could Robbins have thought of lightning here? In one passage, she pivots on one foot and gains momentum by hopping on it with the other leg extended to the back. It creates a vortex that reminds me of Giselle’s rise from the grave. A rapid stream of turns follows before the move­ment slows momentarily like a thick cloud. Almost frantic direction changes lead to her departure, and the weather seems to calm down momentarily in a pas de deux for Peck and Angle, only for the storm to return in a sextet culminating with three ladies held aloft with a back leg in a high attitude against the sky-like backdrop. The work with its many moods draws to a close with a Nocturne, while the dancers, one by one, walk onto the stage forming a community of individuals. An imagined apparition or cloud draws everyone’s attention, and all the dancers’ eyes move together as one above and across the audience. The imagined cloud disappears, the focus shifts inward and fills the dancers with purpose. The arms open, the dancers turn and walk toward the back of the stage. The created empty space between audience and dancers makes the world seem larger, and as if by chance, the men end up upstage left and the women opposite them. The men bow toward the women, who curtsey in return. The dancers then extend their upstage arm. They form a circle, acknowledge each other, and eventually walk out as couples, while the curtain descends. The splendid cast was completed by the striking Zachary Catazaro and the phenomenally present Joseph Gordon. What a light he is! It would certainly be remiss of me not to mention the care that pianist Cameron Grant brought to the beautiful Chopin selections.

Magnificent and sumptuous dancing was the norm during the festival. Well-attended houses and enthusiastic audiences affirmed that New York City Ballet is doing something right and that most of Robbins’ work matters in our time. Highlights included the Goldberg Variations from 1971, with the heroic Susan Walters at the piano and a stellar cast featuring Emilie Gerrity, Lauren Lovette, Daniel Applebaum, Joseph Gordon, Anthony Huxley and Taylor Stanley in the part that depicts young people forming relationships. In part two, which analyzes trust in different mature relationships through the masterful use of timing and hesitation, it was Sterling Hyltin with Jared Angle, Sara Mearns with Tyler Angle, and Ashley Bouder with Andrew Veyette, who all gave remarkably attuned interpretations.

Robbins’ version of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (originally choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska) has the choir, its four pianos and the percussion instruments on stage. The score is such a treat, I almost do not care whether or not the dance lives up to it. I perceive Robbins’ In G Major set to Ravel (with scenery and costumes by Erté) as another bow to Nijinska. Her beachy Chanel-designed Le Train Bleu from 1924 certainly comes to mind in his 1975 visit to the art deco era.

Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz took on Robbins’ 1976 Other Dances, which he originally created for Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Peck and De Luz marvelously feed off one another’s understanding of how to tease a phrase. Pianist Elaine Chelton and the two dancers take delight in the intricacies the score offers and serve them with dreamlike abandon; Chelton’s staccato passages are mirrored by fast and folksy footwork. Peck’s and De Luz’s artistry takes me on a wondrous journey as they celebrate Chopin’s music through their informed dancing full of captivating seemingly improvised choices.

As much as Robbins is a man of humanity, he is a man of the theater, and his funny and insightful The Concert (1956) is a prime example of this winsome combination. I could not help but giggle at its shenanigans and tear up at the sheer poetry of it. The Cage (1951) did not carry the needed ferocity, Circus Polka (1972) for 48 children and a ringmaster should be relegated to matinee performances strictly for parents’ delight, the solo A Suite of Dances originally made for an aging Baryshnikov in 1994 seems overlong, and the performances of Afternoon of a Faun (1953) and The Four Seasons (1979) kept me awake but did not excite me. Mind you, I am not complaining, rather I am happily overwhelmed by the richness of the work, which also included dances as diverse as Opus 19/The Dreamer from 1979 to Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Glass Pieces (1983) to Philip Glass, and the 1945 Interplay to the jazzy score of Morton Gould in which young dancers playfully compete with one another. The spirit of joy and excellence give hope for a future filled with fantastic dancing and a healthy selection of Robbins’ repertoire for the company.

An assemblage of Robbins’ musical theater work by Warren Carlyle, which included selections from Peter Pan, On the Town, Gypsy, West Side Story, The King and I, Billion Dollar Baby, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof, as well as a Robbins-inspired new work, Easy, to more of Bernstein’s music, by the otherwise talented resident choreographer Justin Peck, were not as exciting as most of the other presentations.

It is a good thing that New York City Ballet does not hold a monopoly on Robbins’ dances. On a Friday in March, I had the good fortune to witness a dress rehearsal of Diana Byer’s chamber-sized New York Theatre Ballet at the 92Y in more intimate works staged by Kyra Nichols, Peter Frame, Christine Redpath, and William Whitener. Rondo (1980), Septet and Concertino (both from 1982) are other fine examples of Robbins’ musical acuity and his sense of creating communities however small they might be.

Other than the timely and praiseworthy efforts by New York Theatre Ballet, there are a few events organized by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center that deserve one’s attention; and choreographer Luca Veggetti will reimagine Robbins’ contemplative Noh-inspired Watermill this October at BAM. I am curious what American Ballet Theatre will have up its sleeve in the fall to honor the choreographer who started his performing and choreographic career (remember Fancy Free?) with the company. But I need to ask why it is that ABT does not do a Robbins evening during its spring season at the Metropolitan Opera with the works he made for the company. Imagine the excitement a joined effort (with NYCB) would have created for both companies and the art form ballet in general to have different works for a 100th birthday festival in more than one theater at Lincoln Center during the same time. ABT missed an opportunity to pay tribute to Robbins, the American ballet and theater giant, in a truly grand manner, which he would have so richly deserved.