BWW Review: New York City Ballet's All Jerome Robbins Program, March 3, 2019
It's become second-nature for many in the dance world to refer to Jerome Robbins as a second rate choreographer these days. Or should I say even 40 years ago?
You can even go to New York City Ballet and overhear people ask who Jerome Robbins even is.
"Who's Jerome Robbins?"
"The one who did West Side Story and Fiddler."
"But that was a long time ago. Did he work on Dear Evan Hanson.?"
"Uuumm, I don' think so."
What else can you do but laugh? Some of us may be getting older, but at least we remember Jerome Robbins.
And with great fondness. And I don't think his ballets will leave us so quickly.
Jerome Robbins choreographed for over six decades, working in theater, ballet, television, and films, spending the last 30 years of his life predominately with New York City Ballet, his true artistic home since 1949, one he kept repeatedly abandoning until he returned in triumph with the 1969 Dances at a Gathering. That put him back on top of the ballet world ballet, one he never left again unless you call his Jerome Robbins on Broadway, a 1989 compendium of his Broadway hit dances, a bit of a stray.
Unique was a word you could easily use when discussing or reviewing Robbins. He put his dancers into sneakers almost half a century before Justin Peck did. He also worked with new composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Morton Gould, and he choreographed to Frederic Chopin. OK, Isadora Duncan also choreographed to Chopin, but Robbins could make it endearing and wildly funny.
There was a sense of history at the performance I saw. One ballet was choreographed at the end end of WW II, the other in 1958 when psychiatrists were beginning to research and publish heavily on sexuality, reproduction, and anxiety. Then we have one ballet choreographed in 1970 when women's rights and gay rights became hot topics.
As shown in NYPL's Library of Performing exhibition to celebrate his centennial, Robbins was an avid reader and even more a keen observer of popular culture, especially in New York, his favorite city of all.
Interplay, his second ballet after Fancy Free, was first produced in June of 1945, just a few months after the WWII European surrender. I can imagine Robbins walking around and asking himself just who would pepper the ballet, both onstage and, especially, in the audience. The usual ballet people, the bobby-soxers screaming at Frank Sinatra concerts or couples holding hands at Ingrid Bergman movies?
A big hit at its premieres in the Billy Rose Varieties, the ballet soon entered the repertory at Ballet Theatre, where John Martin, the New York Times critic, wrote: "...(It is)..a pure abstraction without story or characterizations of any kind.. Except for its totally different idiom, this is not unlike something Balanchine might have done. It is primarily formal, light as a feather in substance, inventive for the most part, and extremely well made. ..Just as the piquant style of Nijinska's Les Biches was in its creator's mind a kind of Sylphides of the mid-Twenties, this might be considered as the foundation of an American mid-Forties classic style."
He also praised the cast, especially a young dancer named Mildred Herman, who went on to become Melissa Hayden.
So from Ballet Theater it went to New York City Ballet in 1952 and has been there ever since. When it first premiered there, the critics were not particularly enthusiastic. Anatole Chujoy was to write that the dancers did not have the "whip-cracking zest that one associates with Interplay."
I am still not convinced myself. The dancers might be a great group of kibbitzers off stage, but onstage these are ballet warriors. That's how they have been trained. They may wear sneakers off stage, but here the women are on pointe. It's like a strange cake batter. How do you mix them up, especially for the lively, yet bluesy music? The idiom of the 1940s Robins is a time that they have never experienced or understood, and why should they? What was relevant to one generation is not to three generations later.
Still, there was a great deal to enjoy. The dancers, in Santo Loquato's bright shirts, were a lively bunch. Peter Walker, recently made a soloist, was a particularly good presence, perhaps too noble for the proceedings, yet there was also something playful and heartfelt about his duet with Sarah Villwock. Seeing them together, you could understand love, in all its puppyish 1940s nuances, even if they seemed more mature than Judy or Mickey.
Or was it just my perception. As always in many of the early Robbins ballets, there is that undercurrent of hurt, of not knowing where to go--where does it end?
With grins and high spirits!
In the Night, Robbins follow up to Dances at a Gathering premiered on January 29, 1970, again to the music of Chopin, soon 1970 becoming an audience favorite.
1969 had been quite a momentous year in American history: the Chappaquiddick Affair, the Stonewall Riot, Hurricane Camille, Woodstock, Public Broadcasting Service established, 250,000 march on Washington in protest at the Vietnam War.
Quite a lot, and that's why I have always found the ballet slack for my taste. Somehow Robbins was changing--his anger, his concern for human events. In some ways he was no longer a first-rate Robbins; he was becoming a second-rate Balanchine. His ballets were enjoyable, but the punchiness was missing.
And this did not go unnoticed, especially by Robbins himself, who descended into a great depression for some years.
I think the program would have been better balanced had The Cage or Afternoon of A Faun been programmed in its place; there might have been a better symmetry to the afternoon. The Cage with its violent attacks on the male and Afternoon of a Faun, its sexuality bubbling up beneath yt never reaching boiling point.
In the Night at first looks almost elegiac. There are three couples: the first sad, the second more formal, seemingly performing a folk dance, but the third in the throes of a heated debate or misunderstanding, ending with her sinking to her feet.
Balanchine hated this. A woman sinking to her feet for a man? Wouldn't it be the other way around? I thought today's audience would break the theatre down once the curtain fell. Nothing. Even at intermission, I couldn't hear anyone speak about it.
It was beautifully danced by Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon as the first couple; Maria Kowroski and Russell Janzen as the second couple; and Sara Mearns and Jared Angle as the third, unhappy couple. Mearns was so exciting in this, her temperament so well suited to this kind of part. Mad, disgusted, then in love--no one can do this better. And she still kept within the boundaries of a classical ballet performance. She did not break lines. Her temperament set the mood, but she never distorted the ballet fr any reason. She is a great dance artist. She understands how the choreography can meet the drama, and she hits it every time and knocks it right out of the park, as they say.
If it weren't for Mearns, I don't think there would have been a reason to see In the Night. Or perhaps it was just me? These are not the kind of people Robbins usually found interesting. They're mature, and Robbins always seemed hung up on youth, especially in musicals. Sure, now and then a Tevye or Momma Rose might cross his path. But Tony, Maria and especially Peter Pan were more to his liking.
Speaking of Momma Rose, I think Mearns would be terrific in the part--that is if she could sing or had the acting chops. Maybe she knows better than we do.
And now back to youth. Jerome Robbins organized his own company, New York Export for a European festival and tour in 1958. Export Jazz, one of the ballets he choreographed for the company, became a sensation in Europe. Three years later, when performed in New York, it was not the success that Robbins had wished for. John Martin was not impressed. He wanted to know why the dancers were Why were these dancers performing in sneakers? They had been contaminated by the jazz techniques as a norm. Was this the avenue dance was taking? And Robbins, he was the culprit.
N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz was, like Interplay, lively, good-natured, fast paced. That is unless you call the sequence where the men throw the woman off the roof. Is that what it's supposed to be?
Peter Walker once again appeared as the moody lover, even in a crowd, alone, removed, engrossed in the unknown. Here he partnered Laine Habaony, who could become an excellent soloist in the next few years. She did not seem as strong as Walker in the pas de deux--he looked like he was doing all the work at times. Yet she could rise to his strength. I'd like to see them as Romeo and Juliet.
What is in store for the Robbins' legacy? I don't think it will be as strong as Balanchine's--then again, it never was. Balanchine's dancers were never teenagers or moonstruck maidens. They were women--and men. There were the exceptions, but in Balanchine, one doesn't go around explaining drama and theatre, a significant component of Robbins. For those of us who lived through the times depicted in a Robbins ballet through our childhood and teenage days, we have something to grasp, to understand his ideas. But we now have new dancers, beautiful dancers, born long after Robbins.
Do they get it? Sometimes!
Photo: Paul Kolnik