Our chief dance critic on this great theater maker and his particularly American style of ballet, which weeded out artifice and embraced naturalism.
By ALASTAIR MACAULAY
Theater does not consist of words alone. And much of what can be sublime in theater goes beyond words. It is true that all the great choreographers are also among the great makers of theater — perhaps especially when they move furthest from words and narrative. But nobody has demonstrated this point more substantially than Jerome Robbins.
For decades, Robbins (1918-98) was the master of Broadway, the director-choreographer who shaped “On the Town” (1944), “The King and I” (1951), “West Side Story” (1957), “Gypsy” (1959), “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964) and many other classic musicals. Robbins, however, came to musicals from ballet. He needed to return to ballet throughout the era of his Broadway glory. And from 1969 on, it was ballet on which he concentrated.
Honoring the centennial of Robbins’s birth, New York City Ballet will revive 19 Robbins works that show the arc of his career this May. And “Something to Dance About,” a one-act compilation by the Broadway choreographer Warren Carlyle that shows elements of that side of Robbins’s genius, will have its premiere at the company’s spring gala on May 3.
Most of Robbins’s early ballets show just how right for Broadway his talent was: They have fabulous cartoon vitality, a natural mastery of vernacular idioms and wonderful contrasts of tone. Most of his later ones, though, show his pursuit of a formal purity far from Broadway. And in such creations as “Afternoon of a Faun” (1953), “Dances at a Gathering” (1969) and “Glass Pieces” (1983), where that purity is a central thread, he made some of the theater classics of the second half of the 20th century. In one of his final works, “West Side Story Suite” (1995), he revisited his most famous musical as a one-act ballet that combines the energy of gang warfare in old New York with a vision of transcendence.
But Robbins wanted his dance “plays” to be performed without conscious acting. “Dances at a Gathering” always seems to be about whichever dancers are performing it — as do most other Robbins ballets. He weeded out artifice and mannerism where he could. The naturalness he elicited was a particularly American style that then enriched the world of dance.
Robbins began his training in modern dance. After switching to ballet, he started his career as both a dancer and a choreographer with American Ballet Theater. As a performer. he created roles for a galaxy of the world’s foremost choreographers — Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine, Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor and George Balanchine. Robbins was already well established as a successful choreographer when he saw New York City Ballet (founded in 1948) dance Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” It was one of the great epiphanies of his career.
That masterpiece — pure dance, ceremonious, hierarchical, formal, classicism in excelsis — exemplified the sublimity that Robbins henceforth strove to pursue. He immediately applied to become part of the Balanchine enterprise, and Balanchine brought him on board. Robbins created roles for Balanchine, made works for City Ballet; collaborated with him on a couple of ballets (in the Balanchine “Nutcracker,” the battle of mice and toy soldiers was anonymously made by Robbins); and, in “Pulcinella” (1972, sharing credit this time with Balanchine) even danced with him. They played a pair of beggars.
The ballerina Heather Watts created roles for both men at City Ballet. “Jerry could have worked for any other company in the world, and he would have been king,” she said last year at the Vail International Dance Festival. “Instead he chose to work for the one company where all of us regarded someone else — Balanchine — as king. And so did he.”
The two men were opposites in many ways. In the rehearsal room, Robbins was tormented, slow and often cruel to dancers. Balanchine was proficient, fluent and courteous. “Take it easy, baby,” Robbins advised, as he asked for understatement in performance. “What are you saving it for?” Balanchine asked, demanding high energy.
The Russian-born Balanchine, heterosexual and subtly aristocratic, embodied — and extended — the classical orthodoxy of ballet. He effortlessly created stage hierarchies; specialized in effects of grandeur, scale and formality; and glorified women. Robbins, born in New York in a Jewish immigrant family and raised in New Jersey, embodied many aspects of the traditional American story: He discovered high culture through education and never lost his connection with ornery behavior after he became famous. (One source of torment had been the trauma of acknowledging his homosexuality.)
Robbins had begun as a brilliant outsider, often with a superlative flair for caricaturing character and situation. “Fancy Free” (1944) and “The Concert” (1956) are masterpieces of this Robbins style. (A YouTube clip of the “Mistake Waltz” sometimes makes the rounds without labeling to explain that it comes from “The Concert.” Non-dance people, finding it hilarious and assuming it’s a TV comedy sketch, are often amazed to find it was formally choreographed for the stage.)
Robbins matured. Yet he had already made a breakthrough with his “Afternoon of a Faun.” This classic pas de deux isn’t about a mythological faun’s pursuit of nymphs, as Nijinsky’s 1912 “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune” had been — and yet Robbins is recreating aspects of that ballet’s story, sometimes to the same moments in Debussy’s music. The difference is that Robbins sets it in a ballet studio. A male dancer, after stretching on the studio floor, goes to sleep. A woman enters, dances with him, feels his sexual attraction to her and withdraws. Remembering the kiss he planted on her cheek, he returns to sleep. The whole thing might well be the man’s dream.
I especially love the way one phrase develops in “Faun.” The man places his arms and hands around the woman’s face like a frame — but she then stretches through that frame into the air beyond. Following her thought, he lifts her, horizontally before his chest, and carries her across the stage while she continues to reach ahead. Suddenly, on a quiet “ping” in the Debussy music, she does a subtle contraction in the air: She breaks the line of her arms and one knee (bending them) and turns her gaze down.
This has often seemed to me quintessentially Robbins. Like some of his wonderful images of involuntary jazz-style impulsiveness in “West Side Story,” it occurs like a spasm and, in its break from formality, shows his sympathy for the young.
Guess what? Last year, I found that this moment was actually choreographed by Balanchine. And Robbins, even 30 years later, loved to tell his dancers that this moment came from Balanchine.
Many dancers have recalled how Robbins, in “Faun” and other ballets, was a coach of genius, awakening their imagination and sense of motivation; he would spend days guiding a dancer through his or her own conception of a role. More than most choreographers, he was prepared to change or omit certain choreographed details — if they seemed not to suit the vision of the dancer in question.
Robbins finally withdrew from much Broadway activity in the late 1960s. “Dances at a Gathering,” made for City Ballet to an hourlong selection of Chopin music, was a departure for him — and for ballet. “Dances” was a new kind of dance theater: Though by no means the first plotless ballet to suggest multiple plots, its sustained naturalness gave it a miraculous spontaneity. A loosely structured ensemble, full of human intimacy, it’s framed by two “memory” solos (one at the start, for a man, and another halfway through, for a woman). Robbins, as with “Fiddler on the Roof,” was revisiting in art an Eastern European society he had seen as a child on a visit to family there. Decades later, when touring Europe, he went to revisit the Jewish village he had known, only to find it had been wiped out.
Robbins, often inspired by Balanchine, sometimes remarked that he felt like a beginner beside Balanchine’s prodigious example. Yet influence went two ways: You can see traces of “Dances at a Gathering” in Balanchine choreography. In both “Duo Concertant” (1972) and “Sonatine” (1975), a Balanchine male-female couple moves with the pronounced informality and spontaneity of Robbins dancers; and in one of Balanchine’s last ballets, “Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbündlertänze,’ ” the eight dancers — almost never focused out front (as Balanchine dancers usually are) — make a community that is more Robbins than Balanchine.
Soon after Balanchine’s death, Robbins made “Glass Pieces.” City Ballet’s first work to Minimalist music (Philip Glass), it has stood the test of time: Robbins leads his audience into the layerings and structures of three of the composer’s works, with some of his most haunting theatrical imagery. The second movement is dazzling in the tiny steps and patterns given to a corps de ballet who closely cross the back of the stage. You could spend hours analyzing what’s going on here. It’s easy to take your eyes off the lead couple in the foreground, b ut do watch them: For in the way the man bears the ballerina across the stage, at chest-height, Robbins is referring to the second movement of Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” It’s his homage to the classic that changed his career 35 years before.