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.