Jerome Robbins, Still Youthful at 100

By Jay Rogoff

The New York City Ballet ended its brief 2018 summer season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with a gala celebrating the centennial of American ballet and Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins, who died in 1998; the gala itself ended with Something to Dance About, a half-hour medley of dances assembled by Warren Carlyle from Robbins’s many Broadway musicals. Framed by Leah Horowitz’s singing of “Neverland” from Peter Pan (1954) and “Something Wonderful” from The King and I (1951), a dozen numbers hurtled by (“Something to Dance About” itself, from 1950’s Call Me Madam, curiously not among them), rarely lingering long enough to make an impression. In one exception, “All I Need Is the Girl,” from Gypsy (1959), Ashley Bouder flirtatiously persuades Andrew Veyette she is the one; in another, West Side Story’s “America” (1957), Sara Mearns happily kicks at the moon, even though her moves, not to mention her blond hair, lack the necessary Puerto Rican sizzle.

Although Robbins’s Broadway dances deserve a place alongside his ballets (NYCB already has his 1995 West Side Story Suite in its repertory), Carlyle’s mashup is wrongheaded in just about every way but as a fashion extravaganza, with 124 costume changes. The numbers cleverly melt into one another, but without context. In 1989, when Robbins assembled the revue Jerome Robbins’s Broadway, Jason Alexander provided narration explaining each dance’s significance for its show, and also took part in some of the numbers. The 15 dances unfolded luxuriously over more than two hours and offered a kind of history of a generation of the American musical, from On the Town (1944) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964). With its speed, however, Something to Dance About relies on our recognizing the snippets of song and dance and providing the context ourselves, likely bewildering audience members younger than 50.

More important, Carlyle’s medley ignores three keynotes of Robbins’s work for both Broadway and ballet stages. First, Robbins continued the innovation of Broadway choreography that began with George Balanchine’s for On Your Toes (1936) and continued with Agnes de Mille’s for Oklahoma! (1943), in which dances reflect and advance the musical’s dramatic situation. Without that context, you can’t understand the dances. Second, he created musicals about real people, often living in real, contemporary American situations—World War II sailors on shore leave in On the Town, New York street gangs in West Side Story—so that Peter Pan’s “Neverland” introduces the dances misleadingly. No one could call Robbinsland “miles beyond the moon” or “not on any chart”; even when he ventured to feudal Siam or Russian shtetls, he had a clear vision of how real people might behave there, and how dancing might express their deepest emotions and truest identities. Robbins wanted everything, even in his fantasies and period pieces, to unfold in the here and now; as his note for his 1969 Chopin piano ballet, the brilliant Dances at a Gathering, e dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space.”

The third keynote involves character. The bits of dances that come and go invite us to admire the choreography, but Robbins always demanded that choreography exceed formal design and expressiveness to reveal character. Carlyle’s isolation of dance moments, without any sense of who the people are and what they represent, runs entirely antithetical to what Robbins aimed for in his musicals. Although Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht unleash a snazzy Charleston, from 1945’s Billion Dollar Baby, we don’t know why they exude such exuberance; similarly, we glimpse a few seconds of West Side Story’s “Dance at the Gym,” but it simply pushes a button, a meme rather than something fully felt or witnessed. The numbers remain but one-dimensional flashes of Robbins’s genius.

Character in Robbins’s Broadway choreography necessarily emerges from the given musical’s dramatic situation. The drama’s needs inform the dance, which further develops both the characters and the plot. This strategy has become such a standard method of constructing dance-driven musical theater works that we need to recall that Robbins, following Balanchine and de Mille’s lead, set that standard more frequently and firmly than anyone.

Robbins’s high-energy choreography for West Side Story, staged by Julio Monge, highlighted the summer’s Glimmerglass Festival production in Cooperstown, directed by festival head Francesca Zambello. The unison leaps and thrusting arms of the gangs’ dancing unify both the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks as two opposed masses, each moving as a single organism. The dancing encapsulates each side’s members’ need to define themselves as cells in that organism, which grants them an identity in a world dismissive of their individuality because of their poverty, adolescence, and, in the Sharks’ case, race. Robbins integrates acrobatic verve—in the first Jets-Sharks scuffle, each gang’s members leapfrog over the others’ heads—with balletic grace—slides, spins, jetés, and elegantly swooping, gracefully curved port de bras. In 1957, Robbins must have been leery of the potentially feminizing effect of the ballet steps—one girl, nicknamed Anybodys, is a tomboy Jet wannabe, but none of the boys expresses a feminine side, unless we count Tony’s new sensitivity when he falls in love with Maria. Instead, the smoothness of ballet becomes a medium for expressing their coolness—they’ve got the moves—and the dance for the Jets and their girls during the “Cool” number provides one of the show’s iconic images: the Jets, in unison, advancing downstage low to the ground and leaping, still squatting, while snapping their fingers. With the gravity of their condition limiting their coolest aspirations, and with violence their only solution to conflict, we watch them coil like overwound springs, ready to strike.

The other force behind the choreography’s excitement is sexual, building to near-explosions in “Dance at the Gym” and “America.” “Dance at the Gym” is social dancing wildly exaggerated into a balletic war for the tiny turf of the dance floor, the choreography bursting with joy while also acquiring the force of weaponry. The Jets’ exuberant jitterbugging encounters the Sharks’ attacking mambo, led by D. J. Petrosino as Bernardo and, as Anita, Amanda Castro, a dancer with Urban Bush Women. Their advance upon their white opponents feels dangerously thrilling. As a dramatization of conflict, “Dance at the Gym” vibrates with far more excitement than West Side Story’s actual fight sequences, perhaps because while the fights are obviously counterfeited, with the actors pulling their punches, the dancing is always real, and no one holds back. When the mambo fades and the scene mutates into a prim, studied cha-cha to “Maria,” with Tony (affable Joseph Leppek) and Maria (bright-voiced Vanessa Becerra) leading three other couples, arms out to the sides and fingers snapping, the dancing dawdles into disappointment. It takes Castro, strutting and kicking mightily in “America,” to reinject some life. She leads a cadre of Shark girls swishing their skirts, beating their legs in battement like a Latina can-can line, thrusting arms out, and leaping with aggressive backward kicks to propel the show to its next confrontation.

Act Two’s dream ballet, a prelude to Bernstein’s beautiful ballad “Somewhere,” envisions white and Puerto Rican gang members joining in a harmonious dance. They swoop sideways, skip, and canter like ponies, then join hands in a big circle. They chase each other, not murderously, but in play. The music shifts into “Somewhere,” with a reverie reminiscent of the “Maria” cha-cha, three couples dancing, hands held up before them, palms not quite touching. They partner up, and the boys lift the girls gracefully; the girls then leap vertically into the boys’ arms. The dancers join hands again, and the girls race around the boys. Tension emerges between one couple who separate, precipitating a division among all the dancers, who race off, presumably to take opposing sides once more. Robbins’s fleeting vision, curiously, finds peace and brotherhood only in the innocent skipping, trotting, and games of tag, rather than imagining a world in which discovering the universal wish for love and its sexual satisfaction can lead to mutual understanding and emotional maturity.

West Side Story thus offers as its only fantasy of escape from physical brutality and violent emotions a retreat into childhood: in the “Somewhere” ballet, the playground transformed into a killing field reverts to a playground. The show offers its teens no adult models, only four inadequate men. Lieutenant Schrank is a racist brute, Officer Krupke a buffoon, the dance emcee Gladhand a cringe-inducing gay stereotype, and Doc, who owns the drugstore where Tony works and the Jets hang out, a well-meaning but impotent liberal. We hear about Maria’s stern father and Tony’s loving mother, but neither makes an appearance—Robbins keeps out of the show anyone who has attained a serious vision of adulthood, and anyone who loves its characters, leaving a landscape of despair. A few years before, he had directed and choreographed Peter Pan, a musical in which a boy (Mary Martin in drag), sang, “I Won’t Grow Up.” In West Side Story the boys seem to say, “We can’t.”

The emphasis on character essential to Broadway musicals extended to Robbins’s ballets as well. He always insisted, as dancers rehearsed his works, that they discover themselves. Whether those selves proved versions of their actual personalities or largely invented characters, they needed to draw on them to understand the choreography. But having each dancer in charge of his character allowed Robbins, as Deborah Jowitt has pointed out in her unequalled biography, to choreograph visions of community. If, for Balanchine, dancers’ technical expressiveness—what they could do—made possible large formal visions of pattern and imaginative feeling, Robbins’s focus on character enabled him to assemble his dancers’ human elements into great communal structures. Both choreographers aimed at perfection but defined it in different ways.

A knowledgeable ballet-going friend insists there are no real grown-ups in Robbins’s ballets—they’re all about adolescents, like On the Town’s sailors and West Side Story’s disillusioned teens. While there are key exceptions—for example, Robbins’s 1970 Chopin ballet, In the Night, dramatizes erotic psychology in a way that nearly rivals Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer—I think he’s largely right. Most of Robbins’s dancers, after all, would very recently have survived adolescence, and, together with the choreographer’s long-term obsession with psychoanalysis, that might explain his emphasis on the discovery of character: adolescents are continually asking, “Who am I?”

The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival closed its season in August with New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet, consisting of 14 NYCB dancers, in a program of five plotless Robbins works, ranging from one of his first ballets, the 1945 Interplay, to one of his last, A Suite of Dances, a solo work from 1994. Interplay, which followed his smash choreographic debut for Ballet Theater, Fancy Free, puts an ingratiating cast of kids at play, four male and four female, to a Morton Gould score tasting of Gershwin, Copland, and others. In addition to its crowd-pleasing high spirits, it displays an embryonic set of effects that Robbins would develop more fully over a decade later in West Side Story. For example, the opening movement, “Free Play,” includes the later work’s sweeping arm gestures, syncopated walks, and games of leapfrog. The finale, “Team Play,” has the dancers choose up sides and stage a friendly, showy dance competition, with cartwheels and fouettés, that anticipates the more menacing “Dance at the Gym.” And Sebastian Villarini-Velez leads the second movement, “Horse Play,” with the kind of goofy but edgy swagger that will return in “Cool.” In the pas de deux, “Byplay” (certainly Robbins would have called it “Foreplay” if he could have in 1945), Unity Phelan and Peter Walker define their own world, apart from the others, as Tony and Maria attempt to, and some of their pushing hand gestures return, at higher speed, in West Side Story. But “Byplay” also features some relaxed canoodling in the form of cross-legged pliés, soft-shoe ronds de jambe, and a wonderful moment when Phelan swoons into Walker’s arms and he promenades her near the ground, her legs, on pointe, bent at right angles. She slithers down his body to end up sitting on the floor next to him. Then everyone goes back to kids’ games.

Two brief early 1980s works were Robbins contributions to NYCB celebrations of individual composers. Andantino, from the 1981 Tschaikovsky Festival, is an odd, ingratiating duet, both playful and romantic, in which the cavalier often looks off at an angle while the ballerina directly engages the audience. Andrew Veyette supports Indiana Woodward in slow pirouettes and joins her in unison jetés that mark them as a team. Concertino, a trio made for the 1982 Stravinsky Centennial Festival, featured a tall cast of Teresa Reichlen, Daniel Applebaum, and Andrew Scordato, in a dance that remains resolutely abstract and formalist rather than developing tension between the men for the ballerina’s attention. Instead, the three dance as equals, each taking solos, and all frequently finding themselves entwined in complicated formations. Stylistically, the ballet pays homage not only to Stravinsky but also to Balanchine, then in his final illness, though its chummy sexual politics could not be more different.

The program’s two highlights both featured Ulbricht, who toned down his pyrotechnic daredevil try in favor of exquisite control and mature characterization. Robbins made A Suite of Dances for Mikhail Baryshnikov, then 46, and the choreography favors expressiveness and musicality over technical dazzle, without dumbing down the steps in any way. One of several Bach ballets Robbins created during his final decade, it uses four movements selected from Solo Cello Suites 1, 5, and 6, played onstage by Ann Kim. Ulbricht begins by slithering into a relaxed, legato mode that includes spins, little kicks out to the side, skipping turns, leg-out pirouettes, and other moments that, belying their difficulty, de-emphasize virtuosity, toning technique down to make it part of an intimate dialogue with the cello. In the third movement, a melancholy sarabande, the dialogue almost becomes literal, as Ulbricht keeps approaching the cello and backing away, creating a horizontal axis for the dance. In a small, revelatory moment, he springs up onto demipointe, giving the work fresh rapture. The spirited finale unfolds almost entirely on a front-to-back axis, Ulbricht slowing and speeding, sometimes with little steps out to the side, until he breaks free of line and conquers space, first cavorting in a kind of sailor’s hornpipe, then skipping in a large circle, and finally reclaiming the center in a set of spins, starting, stopping, finding an ultimate freedom in the music. Despite its modest title, A Suite of Dances is simultaneously one of Robbins’s purest abstract dance expressions and a thorough investigation of how a dancer’s personality engages with great music.

Ulbricht also performed with Anthony Huxley in a nonce work, Chopin Dances, five movements for men drawn from the 1969 masterpiece Dances at a Gathering and Other Dances, an extended 1976 pas de deux Robbins made for Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. Susan Walters accompanied on piano. These are two of the three great ballets Robbins created to Chopin’s piano music—the third is In the Night—and their greatness, like that of A Suite of Dances, derives from their lack of high concept or pretention, which makes them all feel intimate, fresh, and genuine. Without the pressure of doing something important, Robbins could relax, improvise, and dazzle. Dances at a Gathering marked Robbins’s return to the New York City Ballet after years working on Broadway and with his own experimental company, Ballets: USA, and he began in an almost improvisational way with some of his favorite Chopin pieces. After choreographing some 20 minutes of material, he felt insecure about it and so showed it to Balanchine, who exclaimed, “Make more! Like popcorn!” Similarly, he intended Other Dances as a one-off for a New York Public Library for the Performing Arts benefit, but the enthusiastic response led to its joining NYCB’s repertory.

Huxley begins Chopin Dances with Dances at a Gathering’s famous opening, first performed by Edward Villella. A man enters a sunny, open space and walks about; suddenly he slides into a fluid dance with skips and sideways steps. The dance grows larger and larger. At one point, he nearly exits but returns to race in a circle, punctuated by little leaps. By the end, he has recovered not only a dance, but also a place and a mode of feeling. Slighter than Villella, Huxley projects a precisely articulated vulnerability that makes the solo intensely touching. Ulbricht then dances his opposite in a mazurka from Other Dances, starting with swiveling and stamping, leading into a bravura solo with dashing runs and floating leaps, an image of exuberance—such exuberance that after some spins he pretends to grow dizzy but recovers. Huxley returns in a Gathering solo featuring big jumps and leg-out pirouettes, followed by Ulbricht in Other Dances’ second male solo, with high-kicking leaps, leading into slow turns that accelerate, arms out, arms in, making him a dervish. Both men take possession of their great predecessors’ roles and discover new selves in them. Chopin Dances’ finale, from Dances at a Gathering, brings them both onstage for the first time, skipping in backwards from opposite corners, spiraling around each other, and dancing first cooperatively, with some lifts, then competitively. They comically abandon their friendship and spiral backwards out, the way they came. Though never anything Robbins would have intended, the duet provides surprisingly satisfying closure to the earlier solos’ implicit competition between these two excellent dancers.

The complete Other Dances sparkled at the Saratoga gala with Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz. The opening duet’s Slavic poses—hands dramatically behind heads, confident backward taps of their insteps—pay bold homage to the composer’s Polishness and the original émigré cast’s Russian pedigree, but it also springs some surprises, such as a horizontal lift and whirl of Bouder at shoulder height, another lift with her launching a high-kicking battement, and her radical lean back into De Luz’s arms. Bouder’s solos, alternating with De Luz’s, feature beautifully slow turns and leisurely angular leaps, all of which create the illusion of dancing for her own pleasure. Slavic motifs return in the finale, the pair mirroring each other with arms folded, ultimately circling each other. At the end, Bouder spins, then leaps to De Luz’s shoulder, a perch from which she looks not triumphantly out at us, but lovingly down at him: Robbins makes them partners in a relationship first; only in that context do they become performers.

Most unlike the hyped flash and dazzle of Something to Dance About, the gala’s great glory was The Four Seasons, from 1979, a Robbins masterpiece disguised as a romp, and a perfect example of how, as with Dances at a Gathering, Robbins could produce brilliance when he left high concepts behind and let the music lead him where it would. The score comes not from Vivaldi, as most might guess, but Verdi, the ballet music from Sicilian Vespers, with additions from I Lombardi and Il Trovatore. Santo Loquasto therefore cleverly created a gigantic painted lyre, inscribed, “VERDI,” for the ballet’s lightly allegorical opening, in which the god Janus convenes four dancers who personify the seasons.

“Winter” opens on eight women in white tutus, shivering in bitter wind, embodied by Devin Alberda and Ralph Ippolito. Lauren King trots in on pointe and gets blown about the stage and comically rejected when she tries to huddle with the others. Flinging her arms out in a refusal to freeze, she launches into a carefree dance, “defying her windy foes with big leaps in pas de chat” and motoring on one pointe, Giselle-style, down a diagonal lined by her colleagues. Alberda and Ippolito become her allies, their reward neat circles of turning leaps. In “Spring,” Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle dance a supple pas de deux, punctuated with visual puns. Mearns shows everything as potential energy, with bent-kneed pirouettes and little leaps that display her great transparency. She alternately spins to the right and the left, like a spring winding and unwinding. An interlude features four men bouncing vertically in comically symmetrical patterns before Mearns and Angle perform jetés and lifts in splits. She slithers around him, and they dance back-to-back, before a galloping leap to the finish.

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” and so it is in Robbins’s ballet, a languorous, hip-swaying dance for Teresa Reichlen, partnered by Ask la Cour. She ends by leaping into his arms, and he swings her around and up to his shoulder. But “Fall” quickly chases them away, with Ulbricht as a faun leading the female corps in a scampering bacchanal, and it pauses long enough for an even more Dionysian pas de deux for Veyette and Tiler Peck. He supports her in extended spins, and each time she suddenly halts, thrusting her arms out and staring him down hungrily. She luxuriates in her solo variation, tearing off brilliant spins, her precisely whirling hands adding erotic wit. Finally she accelerates into a tornado, stops on a dime near the wings, and slips away, leaving us breathless. Peck has developed great sultriness in the role, making the choreography provocatively grown-up, then joining the entire cast in the finale, whipping around in triple fouettés. It’s the kind of magical moment that, even in this often giddy, often comical ballet, shows Robbins as a great and serious artist after all.

For if we consider Robbins’s place among 20th-century ballet choreographers, who is better? Balanchine, of course, and possibly Frederick Ashton. But among American-born creators of ballet, no one can really touch him at his best, and his best, paradoxically, often emerged when he discarded his occasional high seriousness of purpose, which can gnaw at you when you watch The Goldberg Variations or Dybbuk. “Easy, baby!” Robbins would exhort his dancers, and his ballets likewise shine brightest when they disguise their considerable difficulty and, like The Four Seasons and his Chopin works, appear to relax. This illusion of insouciance, though it sometimes can taste of arrested development and at others curtails psychological or erotic revelation, nevertheless helps make his best ballets surprising masterpieces and keeps them fresh and young.