There are many choreographers who have neither the depth of ideas nor range to sustain a full evening and whose work is best suited to splitting a bill with another artistic voice. Jerome Robbins is certainly not one of them. The four ballets on the program showed his incredible artistic range without ever losing the playful, slightly self-conscious stamp that marks all of his work. The audience was taken on a journey through multiple eras, as well as styles, spanning the Minimalism of Glass Pieces to the Expressionism of The Cage to the Neoclassicism of Andantino to the Pop of NY Export: Opus Jazz. The whole affair left me wondering if there was anything Robbins or his newest generation of translators couldn’t inspire, reference, or connect.
“entertainment is the universal language” -Ed Sullivan
On November 29, 1959, Jerome Robbins’s Ballet: U.S.A. performed excerpts of NY Export: Opus Jazz on the Ed Sullivan show. In the clip, Sullivan is captivated by this energetic gang as they use his “universal language” to represent America abroad. As far as old footage of dance goes, this is one of the better reels I have seen. The black and white television camera followed the action around the studio set and zoomed in close enough to make me feel like I just might be part of the seventh couple shimmying to the jazzy sounds of Robert Prince. The fearless attitudes of these dancers came right through the screen, paining me with nostalgia for a time I have never known outside the viewing room of the New York Performing Arts Library.
I went to see the All Robbins Program at the David Koch Theater with this bit of history on my mind and was overjoyed to find his ballet-in-sneakers work in excellent shape. The first movement was sharp and well rehearsed. The structure of this entrance continues to satisfy as it unwinds the group to introduce the dancers, looking like models for a PG American Apparel ad, and then winds them back up in a sort of physical palindrome, creating a tension where the audience can’t wait for the next dance. In the third section, “Improvisations,” this new generation showed themselves to be savvy at winging it, entertaining each other, and us, in front of a blank score set piece. Inside this section, four men hold hands to form a human rope and play with tangling and untangling themselves for their peer audience. With Robbins, every gun eventually fires a shot, every phrase of movement resolves or bursts apart. Later, Ashley Laracey and Taylor Stanley struck the right balance between a burning adolescent fling and a cool summer night in “Passage for Two” and when the full company returned for the finale in white tops, they were not robbed of their vivid color. Throughout Justin Peck stood out as the coolest, most confident cat. Ben Shahn’s graphic title treatment and sets grounded the mood of the piece in both a golden era of advertisements and cultural upheaval. But most importantly, this new cast has caught the youthful glimmer of hope that is absent in our current dejected American reality. Though this untamed spirit may not have come as natural as it did for the ’59 cast, certainly these young people are quick studies. It ended the program on a buoyant note.
Preceding Opus Jazz, Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette flirted serenely in Andantino. Set to a Tchaikovsky piano concerto that most dancers are familiar with from their rond de jambe combinations at the barre, there was a daring simplicity to this pas de deux that eventually overcame the treacly feeling of this music. Bouder’s technical finesse and pleasant face deserves the credit for this feat—overcoming Veyette’s stiff partnering, she proved ballet is indeed woman. If any of the four ballets should have been struck to make this program tighter, Andantino certainly would have been on most curator’s chopping blocks.
Rewinding the program further, Sterling Hyltin dropped jaws (and heads between her thighs) as the Novice in The Cage. For repeat viewers, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek should be required reading before returning to this ballet. Having recently read it myself, it brought this ballet relic out of the museum and back into the horrifying context of the natural world. Robbins’s imagination and Dillard’s intense research converge as they both ponder the meaning of gross fecundity and senseless violence in the world. Hyltin’s duet with and subsequent beheading of the Second Intruder was more heartbreaking than ambivalent as she fully embraced the strange pull of corporeal duty, cannibalizing her mate. Like an insect-world version of Giselle, the corps de ballet thrashed about in perfect unison to Igor Stravinsky’s throbbing score as eight-legged Willis and Rebecca Krohn commanded as a fiercely antennae-d Myrtha. The skeletal patterns on the back of the costumes were simultaneously grotesque and hauntingly beautiful on such slender specimens. The Cage put a spotlight on Robbins’s darker side, bringing his usual subtext out of the shadows and onto the subject line.
Coming full circle to the beginning, the evening opened with the abstract Glass Pieces. Against a graph paper backdrop, a large cast of dancers in colorful rehearsal clothes milled purposefully across the stage in the diagonal patterns of the “Rubric” section. Dressed as twins in subdued hues, more formal couples emerged from the fray like pairs of intimate coordinates, first a tan, then pink, and then sage. Their partnered lifts cut through the space creating new arcs on the canvas and dispersed the surging crowds. Lydia Wellington’s lines continually drew the eye, leaving no doubt there are more soloist roles in her future. Reminiscent as it was of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing in the flesh, this section made me wonder about the mutual appreciation these two artists must have had for each other.
In the second section, “Facades,” a silhouetted corps of female dancers created a shifting tableaux for a pas de deux between Wendy Whelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring. The women embodied the relentless beats of Philip Glass while the couple mirrored the melodic strains. The mood was alternately restrained and ventilated as the stage space was opened up and divided by patterns cut with the cool precision of Whelan’s limbs. When the corps of men returned to the stage for the final movement, flooding it with flexed foot jetes and athletic running that furthered the vivisection of the floor, the grid also came back into focus on the back wall. The women entered with an energetic menage, juxtaposing a large circle against the tiny squares. Glass Pieces was more than just a virtuosic dance performance; it was also a brilliant conceptual painting that existed solely inside the particular temporal and spatial confines of my Thursday evening viewing.
There is still so much to learn from Robbins’s work. Critics and fans of Sullivan, Balanchine, Dillard, and LeWitt, eat your heart out.