It’s no secret that Jerome Robbins was hard on dancers. To understand that he also loved them very much, you have only to watch the New York City Ballet performing his works during its Jerome Robbins Celebration, through Sunday at the New York State Theater.
His Goldberg Variations (1971) is a long, endlessly inventive dialogue with Bach’s coruscating music— as simple, and as intricate. But it seems to me it’s also about dancers growing up in dance. The variations in the first half are playful. Two men (currently Benjamin Millepied and Christopher Wheeldon) indulge in canonic banter. The same guys have a sort of double date with Jenifer Ringer and Pascale van Kipnis, help them into handstands, but go off together— as do the ladies. Arch Higgins, wonderfully vital and exuberant, plays ballet master to an obedient ensemble, then bolts into the throng and turns the pattern inside out. During the second half, practice clothes gradually yield to 18th-century grandeur, and a whole new cast shows up. Here full-fledged pas de deux are framed by the corps, and intent to dazzle comes into play. Sébastien Marcovici may droop when Helene Alexopoulos leaves, but the music instantly lifts him as if a puppet master’s hands were plying his strings. In the final duet, Kyra Nichols and Damian Woetzel let out an elegantly managed barrage of virtuosity. Yet when the couple who announced the theme almost an hour before return, they’re in practice clothes, as if to say stripped-down is best, and the simple lift of an arm in a classical port de bras can be the finest thing in the world.
Robbins’s last ballet, Brandenburg— made 26 years later, also to Bach— begins with a witty little exercise in pliés before turning the ensemble loose in swiftly forming and reforming garlands of dancing. But one of the glories of both these works is the way he challenged and displayed dancers intrepid enough to catch his attention. The inheritors of these roles fall on them with gleaming eyes— mastering not just the fine steps, but the attentiveness to others and the naturalness that are so crucial to Robbins’s style. In Goldberg, Higgins’s dash is matched by Wheeldon’s courtly wit, Marcovici’s ardor, and Millepied’s slashing jumps and bold attack (not a big man, Millepied dances big, as if craving the space beyond his actual reach). The sensuous Ringer and sharper van Kipnis also blossom in this ballet, along with the glorious senior ballerinas Alexopoulos and Nichols. Wendy Whelan and Marcovici, Maria Kowroski and James Fayette lead Brandenburg with distinction, but my favorite duets are the sprightly pas de deux in training during the “Menuetto” and “Polacca” of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Riolama Lorenzo, Rachel Rutherford, Jared Angle, and Stuart Capps dance them beautifully, the women with that special “Jerry made this for me” glow.
Lorenzo stands out too in the 1984 Antique Epigraphs, with single suspended turns so airy that a sea breeze seems to be licking at her legs. She also projects the dark enigmas in her solo, wielding her arms like a large bird or a priestess conjuring the winds. In this delicate ballet, Robbins uses Debussy’s flute itself (Paul Dunkel eloquently plays Songs of Bilitis and Syrinx) as a kind of wind, summoning the eight women in filmy chitons to stare into the distance, blowing them into sisterly groups.
The eroticism of Pierre Louys’s pseudo-Sappho poems inspired Debussy. Robbins has a more sunlit vision. His women share confidences, gather in quiet rituals, and when one performs alone, you think beyond the sorority of dancers to cultivated denizens of Lesbos reciting poems to one another. The dances, their complications veiled by the illusion of effortless meditation that Robbins loved, are also like gifts to those who perform them (Lorenzo, Alexopoulos, Kowroski, and the seductive Monique Meunier).
Antique Epigraphs is paired with the 1953 masterpiece Afternoon of Faun. Here is a different view of dancers. The man who lies sleeping in a white studio as open to light as a beach is a healthy, curious animal, like the faun of Nijinsky’s famous 1912 ballet. When he arches up from the floor, the reference to that work and its scandalizing ending is clear; but this man is not exploding in orgasm, he’s enjoying the feel of his own stretching muscles. He and the nymph who picks her way onstage like a dancer trying out new pointe shoes are innocent, dreamily sensual. And very self-preoccupied. The invisible mirror that separates them from us draws their gazes, even while they dance together. Seated on his shoulder, she looks down at him as if puzzled not to see her own reflection.
In Jock Soto, classical dancer subtly merges with residual faun. Darci Kistler’s flashing rhinestone earrings are hardly appropriate, and her hair almost becomes a third performer, but her beauty and the way she combines abandon with guardedness are irresistible. Also irresistible is Robbins’s loving objectivity. These two handsome people are so absorbed in their own bodies and the images they envision for themselves that they only half realize they’re having a little adventure together. Yet what some might call narcissism is fine with Robbins. This is, in part, what dancers are and have to be.
Robbins’s death last summer was a shock to a company already coping with the loss of George Balanchine, its founder and the shaper of its style. Just as in the years immediately following Balanchine’s death the company danced incandescently, believing it owed him miracles, the dancers and those in charge of the Robbins repertory now (notably Jean-Pierre Frolich, Susan Hendl, and Victor Castelli) deliver his ballets to us with spirit and understanding. May that mission thrive.
Two years ago, Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner created a superb dance theater work, Antonio Caido. At its heart was a scene in which four people, their hands hanging over the edge of a table, attempted to hold a woman who kept slipping out of their grasp. The subject was accidental death by drowning. The subject of their new Please Don’t Leave Me at P.S. 122 is love, and slipping away from or crawling into another’s embrace becomes the theme. In frank and beautiful ways, these two Brazilian-born choreographers reveal love in all its generosity and suffocating need.
They traffic wittily in familiar images: the bride carried over the threshold, the Cinderella moment of feet stuffed into ill-fitting slippers, the Patsy Cline song “I’ve Got You” (which becomes fodder for a deliciously corny karaoke routine on film, choreographed by Bryan Kepple for Lerner, Maria Hasabi, and Sarah Michelson). But the heart of the work is the sweaty grappling, the absurd and awkward fitting of one body to another, the need to hold and be held even when you can’t find a comfortable position together. While Pedro Osorio stands immobile, his back to us, hands appear between his legs. Hasabi follows, emerging from the space behind him as if from a cave; after clambering laboriously up his body, she retreats the way she came and lugs him, still unmoving, away. No matter how strategically Lerner tries to slide out from under the sleeping Hasabi, there’s always an arm to lasso her sleepily, a leg to be thrown across her in bizarre and imaginative ways. Kepple wants to walk; Lerner wants him on her lap. Michelson and Lerner— sitting enmeshed in each other’s limbs, trying to get comfortable— argue in English and Portuguese about each new embrace.
This isn’t about sex; it’s about the complications of tenderness. Dance being what it is, the twining, slipping-away bodies stand for all the tribulations of partnership. Especially in the marvelous scenes between Lerner and Michelson, you feel the anxiousness to please and the joys of intimacy warring with feelings of being trapped, being used. You laugh at the god-awful positions they get into even as your own body absorbs their heat and fatigue. Love is labor willingly entered upon: that’s the true valentine message.