Walk With Me: The Art of Jerome Robbins

Walk With Me: The Art of Jerome Robbins

Walk With Me: The Art of Jerome Robbins

The genius of Jerome Robbins.


It is the end of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. For an hour, the audience has sat in the dark and watched ten dancers, never more than a few at a time and sometimes only one, run, sway, walk, flirt, turn, raise their legs in airy arabesques and jump. As the pianist begins to play the extraordinarily limpid opening measures of Chopin’s Nocturne in F major (Op. 15 No. 1), the dancers stroll out of the wings one at a time, each at his or her own pace and in no particular order, promenading calmly as if taking the warm evening air. A man in brown crouches down and slowly, deliberately touches the stage with the palm of his hand as the others watch.

The mystery and potency of the gesture is surprising. The unhurried, wistful, sometimes playful performance that preceded it, sustained by familiar Chopin mazurkas, waltzes and études played simply, without virtuosic flash, by an offstage pianist, has suddenly acquired a different hue. The music darkens and quickens, as if a cold wind were blowing; turbulent arpeggios, now in a minor key, rumble up from the lower register of the piano. The dancers stop in their tracks and tilt their heads upward, their eyes following something beyond our heads in an unseen sky; a shadow darkens their faces as their heads swivel slowly to watch it pass; then the music resolves into a major key, and it’s gone. The dancers form a circle and bow to one another, then walk away from the audience arm in arm. What is it they’ve seen, what is the secret they’ve taken with them, I wonder as I stumble out into the lights of Lincoln Center.

It’s an illusion, of course, but a potent one. There is no cloud or looming danger, except in the minor tonality of the music; these people are complete strangers to us, possibly half or one third our age, and neither we nor they live in an idealized, faintly Eastern European world drenched with nostalgia. Each of these seemingly emotion-filled movements has been carefully choreographed and drilled into their minds and bodies. Yet the feelings the ballet has brought up are vivid, and they are not only the kind provoked by watching beautiful bodies moving in space with a grace and precision unattainable to the rest of us. And it seems that, at least for some dancers, at least some of the time, the emotion felt by the audience mirrors, to some extent, their own. British choreographer and former dancer Christopher Wheeldon, who joined the New York City Ballet in 1993, remembers the feeling of dancing the boy in brick (the roles in Dances at a Gathering are identified by the color of their costumes) in this way: “Often last on the program…the wings would be empty, all the other dancers having gone home. The theatre felt like ours, even the audience disappeared. There we were, a group of friends and lovers all coming back to the same place we had all known together at one time. There was a very special, almost magical atmosphere between us.” He adds, suggestively, “I have always resisted watching a performance of it because I know it will never look how it feels.” And yet, somehow, it does.

Jerome Robbins died ten years ago. This year in New York City, his home base for most of his life, there have been several events to mark this milestone. During the spring the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts hosted a large and informative exhibit about his life and work, curated by dance historian Lynn Garafola. Across Lincoln Plaza, the New York City Ballet went even further in exploring the Robbins repertory. Robbins’s association with City Ballet lasted five decades, and his mark on the company’s repertory and dancers has been profound; it made sense for the company to devote most of its spring season to ten programs of Robbins ballets–thirty-three in all–spanning his entire career, from Fancy Free (1944) to Brandenburg, which he made the year before he died. With the opportunity to see the great range of Robbins’s work, one was left with a sense of his style, his search for an American form of ballet that somehow expressed the qualities he demanded from his dancers: simplicity, lack of guile, directness and, most of all, a real ability to communicate emotion that went beyond virtuosity or staginess.

In Dances at a Gathering, as in many of his ballets, Robbins was able to make something as public, contrived, anachronistic and unspontaneous as a classical ballet set to nineteenth-century sentimental Parisian parlor music–with a strong whiff of Polish pastoralism–feel immediate, intimate, almost improvised and deeply touching, both to the people onstage and to those in the velvet seats. How did he do it? The answer, at least in part, is that despite the fact that there is no story line or set–Dances at a Gathering is performed on a bare stage, with only a sky-blue backdrop, stylized “peasant” costumes and balmy lighting to suggest a sense of time or place–the ballet seems to be about something, as elusive as that something is. The intensity of feeling invoked by this and other Robbins works does not really emerge from the steps themselves, or even from the relation of the steps to the music, or at least not from these alone. Even the idea of “a group of friends and lovers coming back to the same place we had all known together at one time,” as Wheeldon describes it, is not a dance idea but a theatrical one. Though Robbins slyly argued that the ballet, which premiered in 1969, had no story, and that “the dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space” (which sounds very much like a Balanchinean idea), this is not how he spoke of the piece with the dancers as he methodically coached them in their roles. (Robbins was not one to leave interpretations to chance.) As Lourdes López, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, told me, “With Jerry it was theater, and there was a story even if there wasn’t a story. You had to have that; it was your responsibility.”

Robbins, who was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in Manhattan in 1918, was an intensely theatrical choreographer and, perhaps more than that, a true man of the theater. He grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, and took up ballet in his late teens after performing in musical theater, both at Tamiment, a Jewish resort in the Poconos, and on and off Broadway. At Ballet Theatre (the precursor of American Ballet Theatre), which he joined in 1940, he excelled in dramatic roles that required an actor’s imagination, such as the lead in Michel Fokine’s Petrouchka, and became a follower of British choreographer Antony Tudor, who created ballets that drew on emotional (some would say psychological) traumas and repressions, such as the loss of a child (Dark Elegies), sexual longing (Pillar of Fire) and the weight of conforming to social expectations (Lilac Garden). In fact, it was Dark Elegies that drew Robbins to ballet in the first place, and it was perhaps in Tudor’s studio that he acquired a taste for difficult rehearsals–both men were famously demanding, and sometimes cruel, taskmasters.

Even after he began making works for Ballet Theatre and, in 1948, joined City Ballet, and for another two decades after that, Robbins didn’t abandon musical theater entirely; he shuttled back and forth, fruitfully though not painlessly, between ballet and Broadway, both of which he took completely seriously. Though Balanchine too had dabbled in Broadway and movie musicals in the late 1930s and ’40s, such mobility between the two worlds was not typical, especially as ballet became more established in the United States. Robbins’s achievements in musical theater are huge and self-evident, even if one is not a lover of the genre: his first show, with Leonard Bernstein, was On the Town (1944); it was based on Fancy Free, Robbins’s first ballet, and remains a hit to this day. Robbins also made the dances–including the brilliant, self-contained musical-within-a-musical The Small House of Uncle Thomas–for The King and I (1951), which he re-created for the film version. He adapted, directed and choreographed Peter Pan (1954) and conceived, directed and choreographed the Broadway production of West Side Story (1957)–and co-directed the film. He directed and made the dances for Gypsy (1959)–a show that includes the classic “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” routine for three washed-up striptease “artistes,” a number that makes an open-and-shut case for the notion of “less is more.” Robbins’s Broadway trajectory culminated in 1964 with Fiddler on the Roof (based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem), his most personal and emotionally charged–and undoubtedly his most sentimental–Broadway musical, which he directed and choreographed. Pauline Kael wrote of the film version (which, though not directed by Robbins, strongly bears his imprint), “It seems to me the most powerful movie musical ever made.”

Robbins’s great strength in musical theater was his ability to turn song-and-dance “numbers” into an integral part of a musical’s action and the development of plot and character. Consider the opening sequence of the film West Side Story (1961), the making of which Robbins was intimately, obsessively involved with. As it begins, the camera pans over the island of Manhattan, a bridge, city neighborhoods, up Broadway (the sound of snapping fingers begins) and down to a ball court and a clump of semi-tough-looking boys wearing T-shirts, scruffy jeans and sneakers. They are sitting, crouching, leaning against a fence, snapping their fingers, gazing aggressively into space with deadpan eyes. One of them peels off from the group, casually shrugs one shoulder and begins to walk as the others follow in a clump. With the camera focused on their shoes, they trace a neat semicircle around a little girl playing on the blacktop, who follows them with her gaze. Now they’re walking down a street, camera at shoulder height; all at once, but seemingly spontaneously, they turn and look back, then complete the turn and walk on. Without losing a beat, one guy does a little semicircle toward us, his foot lifted a few inches off the ground halfway between flexed and pointed, arms fanning outward. Now another guy does it, now two at once, and as the guys make a ninety-degree rotation and cross the street and the music subtly begins to crescendo, the guys do a gliding step in tandem, and these isolated gestures and “moves” begin to create a sense of order, a pattern. Suddenly this blob is an ensemble, with one guy clearly out in front, a soloist–Riff, the leader of the Jets. They all jump straight up with their arms jabbing into the air, fingers reaching; the brass kicks in with that famous Bernstein melody, and then there’s the big spread-eagle kick to the side, the one with the arms sticking straight out and hands open, the Robbins kick that comes back again and again, not just in the musicals but also in the ballets. Suddenly, this is dancing.

It’s a favorite device of Robbins’s, this artful progression from everyday movement (usually walking) to casually but precisely executed dance steps, all done without alerting the audience that we should sit up and take notice. In a way, it’s just like the beginning of Dances at a Gathering, which was produced twelve years after West Side Story premiered on Broadway and, with its aura of European nostalgia, seems to exist in a wholly different universe from Doc’s Candy Store and Madame Lucia’s Bridal Shop. A young man in brown walks out of the wings with his back to the audience, pensively. He takes a few steps away from us (unusual in the highly presentational world of ballet) and then places his left hand on his hip. He turns to the right hesitantly, as if “marking,” or practicing, the step; then, with greater confidence, he does a more full-bodied, lilting turn to the left, then stops with his arms out, as if to say, “Hold on a minute.” This leads to a series of clearly recognizable ballet steps (pirouettes, jumps, juicy arm movements) punctuated with little pauses and culminating in a big and fast full circle of soaring jumps. On a high, ringing note on the piano, the man in brown again stops with his hands out, followed by a pregnant pause, after which he turns around and walks off, touching his forehead as if to say, “Yes, I remember.” In Robbins, the steps, the musicality and the gestural language that accompanies them–abstract or concrete as it may be–are connected to an idea, an emotional feeling, a mood that is more or less comprehensible to the audience. Or, as Joan Acocella wrote a few years ago in The New Yorker, “In Balanchine, dance is metaphor; in Robbins, it is still representation.”

It is indeed easier to “get” a Robbins ballet than a completely abstract work like Balanchine’s Symphony in C, The Four Temperaments or Jewels. (Comparisons between the two men are inevitable, since they worked side by side at City Ballet for more than three decades.) Many of Robbins’s ballets, especially the earlier ones, have actual stories or at least situations they mean to illuminate in some way: three sailors on shore leave (Fancy Free), a colony of female insects who mate and kill (The Cage), the intimacy and narcissism of dancers in the ballet studio (Afternoon of a Faun), teenagers messing around (N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz). The later ballets–the ones Robbins made after his thirteen-year hiatus from City Ballet, during which he pursued Broadway projects, started his own touring dance company and explored experimental theater–are, like Dances at a Gathering, less story driven; but at heart they still contain a fundamental idea or, like the sprawling Goldberg Variations and the playful Four Seasons, explore a variety of vignettes, moods, themes and situations.

A contemporary ballet choreographer who also seems to work in this latter vein is Alexei Ratmansky, who has made two excellent and–an anomaly in the partisan world of dance–almost unanimously admired works for City Ballet in the past two years, the second one, Concerto DSCH, just this past season (the other is Russian Seasons, from 2006). These are among the most exciting works the company, and indeed the ballet world, has seen in years. Ratmansky seems to share Robbins’s interest in illustrating and playing with mini-narratives and vignettes, albeit in a more fragmented way, and with a wink or two at the audience. In Russian Seasons, the dancers suggest rituals of a lost (or invented) Russian rural life driven by the seasons of life and work: games, friendships, courtships, the harvest, religion, marriage, death. Concerto DSCH evokes sport, collegial rivalry and a kind of joyously post-Soviet community, as well as the ache of lovers separated by circumstance. In both works, dancers watch one another, pretend to take breaks and fool around onstage, as if not taking the proceedings quite seriously. “This is only a ballet!” they seem to say. Ratmansky, who was trained in Russia and danced in Western Europe before returning to become artistic director of the Bolshoi (at only 35), is a postmodern ballet sophisticate in a way that Robbins could not be. (In January, Ratmansky will begin a five-year stint as artist in residence at the American Ballet Theatre.) Robbins brought the earnestness of musical theater to ballet, though; as in his Broadway work, he could be extremely funny.

A Robbins ballet has a certain affect and atmosphere: the studied spontaneity, the relaxed classicism, the concealment of technique combined with a casual virtuosity, the focus on interactions among dancers (rather than with the audience), the transitions from walking to dancing and back again. There are moments in Robbins’s ballets–variations nine and twelve of Goldberg Variations, the beginning of Glass Pieces and the final section of the pas de deux in “Spring” from Four Seasons, for example–when the dancers do little more than walk. Walking is the connective tissue of his ballets, the basic movement language from which the dance steps emerge. As Jenifer Ringer, a dancer at City Ballet who is especially attuned to Robbins’s style (she is wonderful as the second girl in Fancy Free), explained to me, “You can always tell when someone is comfortable in the Robbins rep when they’re able to just walk across the stage and look natural but like a ballet dancer. He used to make us walk for hours…. There’s a way to do it…. It’s more, you roll through your foot.” As in West Side Story and Dances at a Gathering, walking is the device that carries you into the work and into the world Robbins is creating onstage. Every so often, the dancing gives way to walking once again, to remind you that dancing is essentially a form of walking and that the creatures onstage are also people, that the illusion is also a reality. The walking helps to “see” the music, without the mediating factor of ballet technique. It is also a sign of Robbins’s theatrical intelligence that he knows that the eye sometimes needs a rest, that too much dancing is as deadening as too little.

Another constant in Robbins’s ballets is the act of watching, in all its permutations: observing, glancing, gazing. Ringer remembers that when Robbins was rehearsing a pas de deux, he would tell her partner to “look at her, look at her, look at her,” stressing the connection between the two dancers. This gives his pas de deux the feeling of a mini-drama between two people, which in turn can become the subject of a ballet, as in In the Night or, in an indirect way, Afternoon of a Faun. In his choreography for ensembles, the dancers also communicate with their eyes (“Look at me,” “I remember,” “Come dance with me”) and take cues from one another (“Now you do that”). This, of course, draws the viewers’ interest, as we try to decode what is happening beyond the steps and the music. The dancers selected for the Robbins repertory typically have strong, well-defined personalities that they bring to the stage; they do not tend to dazzle with their technique (which isn’t to say that many of them are not strong technicians) but rather capture our attention through their ability to fully embody a role, to both lose themselves and find themselves in it. And they tend to be the same dancers from one ballet to the next, which allows for the development of a sense of trust and ease, with one another and with the audience.

Sometimes, when performing Robbins, the dancers look like they’re having a grand old time, in a way that transcends theatrical illusion. At the Robbins Celebration, this was especially striking (to me) in two ballets: N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz (a “pure dance” follow-up to West Side Story) and Goldberg Variations, particularly in a teasing pas de deux set to a playful little canon (variation eighteen), danced here by Gonzalo García and Wendy Whelan. Just as in the music–where one voice presents the theme, which is picked up a beat later by another voice at a lower register–in the dance García made a move, which Whelan repeated back to him, followed by another, which she again repeated, and on they went. It had the distinct feeling of a game; at one point, they actually rolled with Falstaffian laughter before starting over. Silly, yes, but their real pleasure in this game of follow the leader was dazzling and infectious.

N.Y. Export, an ensemble work set to a jazzy score by Robert Prince, is meant to evoke the rebellious urban street culture of the 1950s. The dancers, most of them from the corps, responded to the steps and the music with such gusto that what could have been a half-convincing period piece with lots of finger snaps, jazzy knees and hands held out on droopy wrists like paws seemed to crackle on the stage. In a section of the ballet titled “Statics,” Georgina Pazcoguin dances a sexy number opposite three guys: at first she teases them, dancing provocatively for their pleasure and her own; then she becomes entangled in an openly sexual pas de deux with one while the other two watch the interactions with voyeuristic interest; and finally she ends up being “attacked” by all three. Here, watching has provoked action, of an ugly sort. Recently, Pazcoguin described her sensations as she dances this section: “I get a sense of fear right after the pas with Andy…when I come up from the floor, after that I have a clear [sense], I mean these boys are all around me, I have to get out…. It’s that intense…. I always come [out of] that section feeling absolutely exhilarated.” The feeling is palpable, electric, and it has the effect of elevating the quartet into something more than a somewhat dated study in style. In fact, the dancers enjoy this ballet so much that two of them, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, have begun to make a cinematic version (Opus Jazz: The Film) filmed on location in various suggestive spots around New York City, including the abandoned High Line on the West Side.

As in “Statics,” the act of watching is not always innocent. Consider Afternoon of a Faun, which is literally about looking: how dancers look at each other and themselves. In this ingenious eleven-minute pas de deux set to Debussy’s beguiling “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune,” two dancers in immaculate practice clothes (the boy is bare-chested, the girl wears a lovely diaphanous thigh-length tunic, with her long hair loose) “rehearse” together in what must be the loveliest studio ever built. The walls are made of sheer fabric, caressed by a breeze, filled with a soft, even light; a deep blue backdrop glows through openings indicating where the door, window and skylight would be. The fourth wall, which would be at the front of the stage, is the mirror. As the boy and girl stretch and gaze at their reflection, then try out a few lifts and supported turns, they gaze out at the audience, who of course watch them just as intently. The two almost never look at each other, except in their “reflection.” The erotic attraction they feel is at once negated and intensified by the device of the mirror, and the ambiguity is augmented by the reality that this “intimate” moment is being watched by thousands of pairs of eyes.

This kind of self-consciousness can wear thin, however. There is something artificial, even phony, about Afternoon of a Faun–the simulated intimacy, the concealment of effort, the aestheticization of details. The phoniness creeps into other ballets as well. After spending a few years in the late ’60s exploring experimental theater–and influenced by the work of his younger friend Robert Wilson, who had an interest in Japanese theater–Robbins made an hourlong ballet called Watermill (1969) about a man (in effect, Robbins himself) looking back on his life. The ballet uses techniques borrowed from Noh and Kabuki and an original score for traditional Japanese instruments. The slowly evolving set is stunningly beautiful, with a waxing and waning moon, kites, a rickety fence on the right side of the stage, sheaves of grain and Japanese lanterns. The ballet too has its powerful moments. The slow-motion effect Robbins was experimenting with is interesting (especially in a drawn-out, sensual and acrobatic pas de deux), but the Asian wash is disconcerting, and in the end it dilutes the impact of the ballet rather than enhancing it. Why is everything Japanese?

Something similar happens in Dybbuk, Robbins’s version of S. Ansky’s play of the same name, which draws on Jewish mystical themes. For all Robbins’s fascination with his Eastern European Jewish origins, the illustrations of Kabbalistic imagery here feel undigested, fake, aestheticized to the point of meaninglessness. The pas de deux has a strange, geometric quality that does little to illustrate the situation of the two lovers; the occult power of the Kabbalah remains a mystery. Compare that with the full-blooded treatment of Jewish folk life in Fiddler on the Roof: the bottle dance at the wedding, the Russian dances at the pub. Even Dances at a Gathering suffers from this prettified vision; the people in Robbins’s community suffer and pine, but there is no space for real anguish in this world. Even death, the cloud that passes overhead at the end of the ballet, makes its presence felt only for a brief moment, after which all is right again.

Damian Woetzel, recently retired from City Ballet, told the dance writer Rachel Straus, “Jerry’s dream, what he liked, was the idea of dancing as though you didn’t know the audience was there. You’re on stage but going through this experience alone. You’re doodling to some extent.” This is the illusion: to create a performance that allows the audience to forget that this is a ballet, with steps that will be the same night after night, and that these dancers are highly trained technicians, hardly people like themselves. The idea is that we will see them as people trying out steps, making discoveries, relating to one another. It’s a trick, of course, and as such it can leave the viewer feeling manipulated or, worse, unconvinced and untouched. And yet Robbins’s embrace of the representational illusion of dance is what makes his ballets, and his musical theater, truly magical in some way: at their best, they create an atmosphere that stays with us long after the curtain has fallen and the dancers have gone on their way, taking the night air.

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