Dance review

Robbins 100 – New York City Ballet

West_Side_Story_Broadway_Rehearsal_1957_ Jerome Robbins_HR.jpg
Playbill, West Side Story Broadway rehearsal 1957, Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The wordless arts, like dance and music, are sometimes harder for me to access and appreciate. I tend to sit there and tell myself stories about what I think is happening—which is of course a valid way in, but not as emotionally satisfying as for people who open themselves to the artwork without needing language as a conduit.

Knowledge enhances and informs appreciation. And there too, with dance, I fall short. I really don’t know much about it, but was very fortunate to go several times decades ago with my friend Kim, a former dancer. What little I do know I learned from her (and from a childhood book, To Dance, To Dream, whose mini-bios of notable dancers I unabashedly loved). Mostly, as when I go to the theater with my brother, or to a concert with my husband, I just revel in watching these empathic experts experience the art form that resonates so for them.

The evening was one of several programs put together by New York City Ballet to commemorate the centennial of Jerome Robbins, familiar to most as the choreographer of West Side Story and On the Town and Peter Pan and Fiddler on the Roof. What I love about Robbins’s choreography is how he expresses pent-up passion, youthful restlessness, mournful longing. But he can also be funny and playful, and I never find his work pretentious or stuffy. Maybe that’s because I came to him from the Broadway side of his career.

I chose the program we attended because it had a minimum of pas de deux—which I don’t enjoy, as I can never find a satisfying or sufficiently lengthy storyline to tell myself during them—and a maximum of unfamiliar, yet promisingly diverse, works. These included The Cage, which I think of as a bug ballet, since it concerns, according to the program notes, “the rites” of “certain forms of insect and animal life” involving “the female of the species considering the male as prey.” Like spiders and praying mantises that eat their mates. Bug ballet. It was wonderfully inventive and thrilling, with a stage filled with dangerous Amazons with wild hair and unrepentant female empowerment. And the lead bug lady made a marvelous leg movement, reminiscent of a cricket, stretching limbs a human does not have. Here is the full ballet from 2016 by the Paris Opera Ballet; around 4:30 in, you’ll see the insect moves I’m talking about.

I had selected the program too because of Interplay, a four-part, eight-dancer piece, which I thought would be like Robbins’s other youth-oriented ballets like “Cool” or Sneaker Ballet (see below); it was fun and playful and light, but didn’t have the jazzy tension I had been hoping for. Steve quite liked it, and it was bright and friendly and airy, if lacking the repressed undertones I’d been expecting.

I had not been particularly enthusiastic about Other Dances, described in the program notes as paying “homage to Chopin’s romanticism and the purity of classical ballet technique, featuring two dramatic dancers in a series of short, folk-infused dances.” The piece was originally created to show off the special talents of Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976. I am sure the dancers we saw were very good (Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz), but they were not Makarova and Baryshnikov, who appear below. To me, staging this work—and the boisterous audience reception—smacked of nostalgia, much like when the crowd at Motown gave a fevered standing ovation to the child imitating Michael Jackson. But I really know nothing and so should not judge.

On the other hand, In the Night, which also looked less than promising initially, as it featured three separate couples (pas de deux again) and no storyline turned out to be fascinating. The Chopin nocturnes were lovely, and each couple was so different. There was a story to each relationship and it was all there to find in the way they danced and interacted with each other. It reminded me of my delight in seeing Antony Tudor’s psychologically based ballets years ago with Kim.

Like the program, I have saved the best for last: Fanfare. What fun this was, and so meltingly beautiful visually—the blues and the oranges particularly. This piece, commissioned by Balanchine on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, uses Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and pairs sets of dancers with the four components of the orchestra: woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion. Each dancer is an instrument—in every sense that you could read that sentence. The effect was synesthetic: you watched the sound, you listened to the dance. It was a fluid, seamless melding of sound and vision. And yet funny and flighty and utterly delightful. A taste follows.

So, in all, a very uplifting evening. And sufficiently inspiring that I have embarked on Amanda Vail’s biography of Jerome Robbins to learn—and appreciate—more.

3 thoughts on “Robbins 100 – New York City Ballet”

  1. I enjoyed this, Nita. Dance is hard for me to access as well, and your write-up makes it seem less so. I particularly liked your concluding comments about synesthetic perception –– which made think I’ve been trying too hard in the past to decipher a dance performance when I might have done better by just letting its motion and sound and color flow over and through me as it will. I can do this with music easily enough; dance for some reason has felt more difficult. Nice post.

    1. thank you so much for your (as always) thoughtful remarks — i find it difficult to let art wash over me; i think it must be the way my brain works (or the way i THINK my brain works): that i have to fix a memory with narration. but actually, the stuff i remember from theater and concerts and dance has no words attached to it at all, just moments that arise from the whole and fix in me. so leaving oneself open to the experience in any way one can seems to be the way to go…

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