Friday, January 28, 2011

I'm Walking

      While watching Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz at New York City Ballet last week, I wondered at the way a dancer can simply start walking in a Robbins world and move into extraordinary dance spaces that reflect our lives with vital or poignant resonance. In the first piece, that space encompasses playfulness, tenderness, exuberance, and haunting memory. In the latter, it’s breakout joy.
         Walk back in time: Dances at a Gathering (May 1969) is both a masterpiece and a milestone, marking as it did Robbins’ return to George Balanchine’s side at the New York City Ballet. In the nearly two decades previous, just look what boasted the Robbins touch as choreographer, director, or show doctor: Call Me Madame, The King and I, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, West Side Story, Oh Dad Poor Dad (etc), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof.  He’d also toured with his own ballet company, Ballets: U.S.A.
         When Robbins returned to the NYCB, he eschewed the Broadway orchestra, the big finish, and “the book.” He brought  the company’s superb stars -- Edward Villella and Patricia McBride – together, along with the excellent pianist Gordon Boelzner, and a waltz by Chopin,  into one of those new studios at the new New York State Theater. Despite no windows and lots of fluorescent lighting, Robbins created a subtle pas de deux and showed it to Balanchine who said, “Make more.”
         Robbins ultimately filled an hour with 10 dancers, each uniquely identified by a color and clad simply in outfits suggesting a peasant gathering. They formed a bucolic community, dancing against a blue background in couples or threesomes, sweeping the stage or standing silently, or watching the sky in a moment of stillness that mesmerizes audiences to this day. When the dancing stops (subtly hinted at in previous pieces), and we observe the dancers we’ve come to know in stillness, the effect is intensely moving.
         Dances begins with one man walking onto the stage, his back to the audience, slowly and simply moving in a languid meditative pace and then springing (how’d that happen) into expansive leaps before pausing quietly and taking his leave. It’s memory, it’s quietly and joyfully returning to a world simply and perhaps sadly remembering old friends. That’s what I thought when I saw it last week. I’ve seen Dancers many different ways, but I’ve always seen glorious dancing in the gathering.
         I wish I’d seen this ballet that first time on May 22, 1969, when the audience rose to welcome Robbins back to NYCB. Imagine their surprise at what he had created – so different from what they had probably expected from the Broadway master. It was so well received that critics went, well, a little over the top. The ebullient Clive Barnes claimed that Robbins had certainly returned to pick up the leadership of the New York City Ballet. For, Barnes stated, Balanchine was arguably not at his peak anymore, and it was time for him to go. Of course, this was not even close to the truth (see the 1972 Stravinsky Festival Week for one thing), and Balanchine and Robbins worked together as company ballet masters until Balanchine’s death in 1983.
         Well, Dances at a Gathering is still a masterpiece, and the company dances it beautifully – they take good care of Robbins’ work at NYCB. Benjamin Millepied, as the man in brown,  began simply.  He danced the phrases, not emphasizing one with any extra drama – a beautifully done solo, and he brought luminous dancers to his gathering: Jenifer Ringer, Amar Ramasar, Maria Kowroski, Megan Fairchild. Sara Mearns, Abi Stafford, Jared Angle, Antonio Carmena, and Christian Tworzyanski. Pianist Susan Walters rendered Chopin’s shimmering music with admirable sensitivity.
         I didn’t expect to like N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz because I just don’t take to West Side Story’s choreographed stepkids (like Interplay). But from the first fanfare of Robert Prince’s music, those kids in sneakers surprised and sold me.
Part of the brilliance of this piece is that, while it seems to be full of loosely improvised jazz, it’s tightly structured. Yes, this piece starts with walking, too, and yes, they’re doing the West Side Story bit, snapping their fingers and stretching and bouncing around on their sneakers, but it doesn’t feel like forced play or that it’s been removed from its Ur-source. It feels like itself, with its own intensity, not the least bit sentimentalized or made to look cute.
         I loved the second section, which begins with three guys and nothing but drums in the orchestra, and that’s just fine but the fires start burning when Georgina Pazcoquin hip swings through  with gusto. The final movement, after the energetic Improvisations section where everyone does their thing, shows Robbins’ savvy, for now the dancers are quite uniform, all in white down to their sneakers, performing a theme with variations, just as in any classical ballet. They’ve shown us that jazzy kids can do this, too, and it’s right.
         Bit of a brouhaha in the news. A few weeks ago, I woke up to the “Today” show and NYCB principal dancer Jenifer Ringer saying, “I’m not overweight,” which was a pretty bizarre way to start the day, I thought. Also bizarre to have ballet news as national headlines.
You’ve probably heard that the chief dance critic at The New York Times had accused Ringer and her Nutcracker partner (who remembers his name?) of indulging in one sugarplum too many or something like that. It was all pretty foolish, including the speed with which NYCB’s publicity department whirled Ringer onto the morning shows.
         Most people were moaning at how cruel Alastair Macaulay was to criticize a dancer’s weight, especially since Ringer has been candid about her own weight struggles. I was sympathetic, but the news coverage was, well, way too heavy. Macalulay went on to defend himself, saying that if you don’t want your body criticized, don’t become a ballet dancer. It’s all about line, you know.
The noise centered on Ringer and missed another issue entirely, that all this line/body business is entirely subjective, and Macaulay (who otherwise seems sympathetic to feminist issues in ballet) should know better. One hundred and fifty pound women were winning beauty contests in the 1880s. Dancers and ballerinas back in that day were not what we in our day would call sylphs. Take a look at the dancers Balanchine struggled with in 1934’s Serenade. Even Elizabeth Taylor in her prime could be considered overweight by today’s size zero standards. Women’s beauty has always been a subjective and ever changing ideal, and feminism or no, it still is. What is "line", I ask. What's line for one goose...
         In his heyday, George Balanchine wanted his women dancers to be sticks, the better (it was said in defense) to dance his fast technique. Well, their bones showed, and he was criticized for promoting anorexia and bulemia. But does that mean to dance Balanchine "purely," one must look like a skeleton? No. After Balanchine died, NYCB ballerinas started looking like women again. Ballet dancers no longer seem to have come out of the same factory mold, all to the good for all concerned. They are more themselves, and that uniqueness is all the more striking in the dances. Hey, these people dance more than eight hours a day – they’re not going to be out of line. So to speak.  The uniqueness of body types in ballet today is much healthier and much more interesting to watch.
         By the way, speaking about individuality and paternalism, that also goes for us in the audience. When I started going to NYCB in the late 1970s, it was a hard struggle to find out anything about the ballets at the ballet. The program notes were nonexistent unless they were written by Lincoln Kirstein, and then they were incomprehensible. The idea was, I remember hearing, that if you were interested in what you were seeing, you’d follow up on it yourself. Which I did.
         A few years after Balanchine died, the company started an information table. At first, it was just that, a table located in the shadows near the side stairs in case Lincoln Kirstein took offense  (the scuttlebutt was that he didn’t approve of the idea). Nowadays, there are elaborate Information Tables in a few “can’t miss” places, and their counters are smothered in “information” typed out on neat sheets. (Even with its excellent Web site, NYCB seems to feel a need to make sure that audiences miss the forest for the trees.) Maybe they think of themselves as a massive educational organization. They have See the Music programs where you can hear and watch an analysis of the music (something’s really wrong  at NYCB if they have to do this), they have fourth ring conversations, dancers chatting with us before the curtain goes up, intermission chats, and so far as I know, they’re probably coming up with some sort of audio tour with headphones that will tell you what you’re seeing as you watch the ballets.
Resist, comrades! Your unique response and your discovery are more important than what the company tells you. Let those dancers dance as who they are, unique, powerful, beautiful artists, the best in the land. Let them “Do more” (and stop all that THINKING!). There are times, as I pass the piles of paper at the Information Desk and then find those same sheets on the floor at performance’s end, if the voluminous and patronizing chatter compensates for a more serious lack of creative vision and a contradiction of the faith Balanchine, Robbins, and Kirstein had in their audiences. I’m just saying.
Dances at a Gathering. Music by Frédéric Chopin. Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Costimes by Joe Eula. Lighting by Jennifer Tipton. Pianist: Susan Walters. Premiere: May 22, 1969, New York State Theater.
N.Y.Export: Opus Jazz. Music by Robert Prince. Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Scenery by Ben Shahn. Costumes by Florence Klotz. Lighting by Jennifer Tipton. Premiere: June 8, 1958, Ballets: U.S.A., Spoleto, Italy. NYCB Premiere: April 29, 2005, New York State Theater.
New York City Ballet’s Winter season continues through February 27. For information and tickets, go to

Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and
Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe.

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