Celebrating Jerome Robbins and Bidding Damian Woetzel Goodbye

Feast and farewell

It's a pity that Floria Lasky (1923-2007), Jerome Robbins's wise, feisty lawyer and adviser for much of his professional life, couldn't stick around to see the New York City Ballet's Jerome Robbins Celebration (dedicated to her and honoring the choreographer ten years after his death and 90 years after his birth) Ten different programs showcasing 33 Robbins ballets were scattered through the company's Spring season, and the dancers ran with them like the thoroughbreds they are.

Audiences could experience not only Robbins's brilliance but his adventurousness and the range of his interests. His first ballet, the 1944 Fancy Free, with its rowdy sailors and flirty girls, was performed, along with such disparate works as his ravishing 1969 Dances at a Gathering, his highly experimental 1970 Watermill, his hilarious 1956 the Concert, his poetic 1953 Afternoon of Faun, and West Side Story Suite (a 1995 abridgement of the epochal Broadway musical he directed and choreographed).

The last Robbins program of the season was a banquet fit for a glutton. It offered only two ballets, The Goldberg Variations (1971) and Brahms/Handel, his 1984 collaboration with Twyla Tharp, and lasted almost three hours. Watching Goldberg, set to Bach's treasure chest of piano variations (very sensitively played by Cameron Grant from a corner of the stage apron), I realized that I'd forgotten how much the ballet's first half conveys a feeling of trying things out. Dancers play around in formal and not-so-formal ways and the choreographer sets himself exercises in canon and counterpoint (how many formations can he devise with two sextets? How many ideas can a canon convey about deconstructed unison?) Blitheness predominates. It's wonderful to see Abi Stafford—looking bolder and fresher than I've ever seen her—being given assists by Amar Ramasar and Andrew Veyette, her partners in the first trio. One grabs her hand and suddenly she's leaping yards off the floor, ready to fly to the next guy. In this part of Goldberg, a walk is likely to turn into a saunter, and two frisky men (Veyette and Adam Henrickson) wear themselves out, lie down, and trace patterns in imaginary sand. Everyone's curious about everyone else. Hendrikson distinguishes himself in several spitfire jumping passages. Veyette and Amasar try out partnering techniques on each other, and Stafford and Megan Fairchild copycat them in a little more refined same-sex assists. The four men named line up to play a game: one falls and rolls, the others bundle up their legs in a nice pas de chat and jump over him as he passes. Tyler Angle becomes a teacher and leads the ensemble in a sprightly class. Yet the sportiness never roams far from the ballet's classical underpinnings and the 18th-century courtliness displayed by the costumed couple (Kaitlyn Gilliland and Jason Fowler) that presents Bach's opening theme.

Just as Robbins finally seems to be spinning his wheels, a whole other ensemble (the women in blue rather than pink) appears, and the newcomers to the party immediately come across as more assured, more grownup, more prey to sudden twists of emotion. Dancers still have moments of vaulting into the air—one here, one there—like popcorn, but Robbins has created some lovely duets. In a slow one, Sara Mearns melts and glows while her partner, Stephen Hanna, follows her around being helpful. Rachel Rutherford comes into her own in another duet; although she looks like a porcelain princess, the filigreed gestures of her slim arms are belied by the implied extravagance of her arching back. When she sits on the shoulders of her partner (Jared Angle) and looks down at him, it's anyone guess what's in store for him. The evening I saw the program, Wendy Whelan and Gonzalo Garcia, performed two contrasting pas de deux, one an almost lusty folk dance 9hands on hips, wide stances, the illusion of hearty laughter0. The other duet, the poignant heart of the ballet, is full of swooning falls. Whelan is elemental in choreography like this; you can't decide whether she's air or water, but fires are stoked inside her. When she reaches out from her partner's arms, the gesture seems to come from someplace in her soul.

When it was announced in 1984 that Robbins and Twyla Tharp were making a ballet together, fans speculated on possible carnage—Tharp's feistiness and Robbins's hot temper being well known. Maybe they didn't know that the two were good friends and that Tharp—thrilled to be working with Balanchine's dancers—was on her best behavior. They also wondered whether George Balanchine would have given his blessing, but although Balanchine had been dead for over a year when Brahms/Handel premiered in June, it was, according to Tharp, he who had asked during the planning stage that the chorographers use Edmund Rubbra's orchestration of Johannes Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, rather than the original version for solo piano.

The ballet is exhilarating—rich with movement but rarely too busy, dense but not too much so. Patterns form, twist, explode, or amble away disintegrating as they go. The collaboration engendered a playfully competitive ambiance. You may note a little boil-up that's surely Tharpian off in a corner behind some classical formality that's probably by Robbins, or a dazzling face-off by the two principal male dancers, Garcia and Tyler Angle). From the dignified statement of the theme by Robbins's dancers, the piece opens up, gloriously, to subterfuge and merging by the two squads. The idea of his-and-hers dancers is part of the game. We can tell after a while that Robbins's principals, demi-soloists, and ensembles wear blue and Tharp's sport green costumes, but by the time they begin to infiltrate each other's ranks, the choreographers are riffing off each other's work, and the distinctions between their personal takes on Balanchinian classicism erode.

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