Celebrating Jerome Robbins—The Man Who Redefined American Ballet and Musicals

In October 1948, Jerome Robbins attended the first performance that New York City Ballet gave under that name and fell in love—with the dancers, with Balanchine's Symphony in C, and especially with 19-year-old Tanaquil LeClercq, who led the ballet's ravishing second movement. He asked to join the company. During his years choreographing for NYCB (1949 to 1957, and 1969 until his death in 1998), he both embraced the company's Balanchinian aesthetic and offered a valuable contrasting voice.

The 10 programs in NYCB's "Jerome Robbins Celebration" weave through the company's spring season. They vividly demonstrate his versatility—acquired through choreographing and directing on Broadway, watching Balanchine at work, and exploring other forms of dance. At the April 29 gala, you could note his genius for engineering charming surprises in Circus Polka (created for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival). A proud but strict ringmaster (Robert LaFosse in Robbins's original role) marshals three squadrons of increasingly tiny girls from the company's school in patterns that eventually spell out "J.R." And you could contrast Robbins's big, four-movement classical ballet, The Four Seasons, set to sweet and rollicking extracts from Verdi operas, with West Side Story Suite, drawn from the epochal Broadway musical he helped shape.

Those two works require dancerly versatility, too—a refined technique, expressive lyricism, and wit on one hand, and the ability to get tough and down-and-dirty on the other. The company members rise to the challenge, even yelling and singing in West Side Story Suite—notably Damian Woetzel (Riff) leading "Cool" and Georgina Pazcoguin (Anita) flouncing around in "America." Robert Fairchild (Tony) and Amar Ramasar (Bernardo) give strong, non-singing performances. The opening-night audience had a bonus revelation: The marvelous mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang "Somewhere" and made hope take wing in Leonard Bernstein's stirring melody.

To go from The Four Seasons to West Side Story Suite, the dancers had to slip out of tights and tutus (and the grandeur they require) into jeans, gaudy dresses, sneakers, and a fighting mode. But the formal ballet also shows Robbins's flair for theatrical timing. "Winter" has a corps of shivery girls, blown about by two playful, athletic male winds (Antonio Carmena and Adam Hendrickson on opening night). But following the vagaries of the music, the same guys can vault around, linked to a saucy latecomer (Megan Fairchild), as if a snowscape has become a skating rink. In "Spring," four green-clad men line up to jump and turn in unpredictable combinations. But the lovely pas de deux, which includes a smooth but very difficult male solo (excellently danced by Philip Neal), is the tender heart of the ballet. Sara Mearns—ample and fluid in her dancing—grows into the music like a new vine curling around a tree. I was impressed by Tyler Angle in "Summer," and Ashley Bouder and Benjamin Millepied, goaded by Daniel Ulbricht's high-jumping faun, make the outrageous bacchanale of "Fall" into a display of impish personal bests.

Except on opening night, The Four Seasons is programmed after Watermill (1972), Robbins's foray into the slow-motion uncoiling of a man's memory on a summer-night beach. I am one of those who find the work thoughtful and poetic—a melding of movement, evocative lighting by Jennifer Tipton, and a haunting score for Japanese instruments by Teiji Ito. Heavily influenced by Noh drama, Robbins didn't account for one thing: A Noh play contains a poetic chanted text; to make music and imagery alone resonate that richly is a challenge. Nikolaj Hübbe, returning to the company he recently left, gives a fine performance as the barely moving, meditative hero (a role created for Edward Villella).

Maybe to appreciate Watermill, you have to associate it with what is known of Robbins's life and feelings. A visit to the superb exhibition in the Lincoln Center Library's Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery is in order. Curated by Lynn Garafola, it boasts ambient audio, videos of Robbins's works in performance and rehearsal, costumes, photographs, artwork, letters, and other documents. See Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Nancy Walker, and Cris Alexander hilariously try to reconstruct a number from the 1944 musical On the Town for Jerome Robbins' Broadway some 40 years later. Study Robbins's steamer trunk, battered from years of touring. Read a letter that he wrote to the Ballet Theatre in 1940, saying he was on the road with a musical and wouldn't be able to attend the audition for this new company. In another letter to a Ballet Theatre colleague, after he'd made a name with Fancy Free, he confesses that he "can't play son to Antony Tudor any longer, nor the adoring disciple."

The second night of NYCB's season fell on the anniversary of Balanchine's death (April 30, 1983) and opened with the ballet that stunned Robbins in 1948: Symphony in C. Mearns and Charles Askegard danced that magical second movement. She was lovely, even when impeded by a distractingly limp tutu that inverted over her head whenever she hit arabesque penchée. And Wendy Whelan performed the 1972 Balanchine-Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements with an expressive depth and nuance that Robbins surely would have fallen for.

 
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