The idea of a ballet based on S. Ansky’s famous Yiddish play The Dybbuk didn’t possess Jerome Robbins the way the demonic wandering soul of the title possesses his promised bride, but it was something of a monkey on his back. He first thought of the project in 1945, when he’d just made his name as a choreographer. In 1954, he proposed Dybbuk to Lincoln Kirstein for the New York City Ballet and was turned down. Four years later, in charge of his own company, Ballets: U.S.A., he was nudging Leonard Bernstein to write a score. Finally, in 1974, NYCB premiered Dybbuk, with Helgi Tomasson and Patricia McBride as the protagonists.
Robbins was never happy with the ballet. He had pruned away most of the narrative devices he’d experimented with during rehearsals, along with many props. After the premiere, he took scenes out, then put them back. Finally, in 1980, he reduced Dybbuk to A Suite of Dances, excising the principal characters and all semblance of plot. When Kirstein wanted him to revive the original Dybbuk in 1986, he refused, saying Bernstein’s music had turned out to be too dramatic for what he’d had in mind. The fact that Robbins was working in George Balanchine’s company, where the prevailing aesthetic was to let music and dancing alone tell whatever stories a spectator might care to imagine, certainly affected him, and Kirstein’s turn down 20 years earlier still rankled (the NYCB’s founder, imagining a fully produced dance drama, had suggested that such a ballet might be more suitable for a company rooted in folk tradition, like Israel’s Inbal).
I wrote in the Voice in 1974 that the ballet was like fascinating and eerie footage from a never-competed film, with key scenes missing (Robbins, confronting me in the New York State Theater, a week or so later, said gloomily, “You were right about Dybbuk“). Watching the San Francisco Ballet’s revival last year and the NYCB’s this season, I still feel the tug between the plot of the play and how much of it Robbins was willing to show. You either know the story (it’s printed in the program) and fill in the blanks, or you let Bernstein’s tremendous score and what you do see onstage trigger another story or simply enmesh you in mystical, sinister atmosphere.
NYCB has restored one scene, “The Pledge,” not in the San Francisco version. Two young men (Tyler Angle and Adam Hendrickson) dance companionably together, watched over by a third (rabbinical?) figure. A woman ceremoniously joins each of the young men; the pairs form “London Bridge” arches; Benjamin Millepied steps through one, Jenifer Ringer through the other, and they acknowledge each other. This tableau, reminiscent of one in the Stravinsky-Nijinska Les Noces, is shorthand for the friends’ vow: If one has a son and the other a daughter, the two will wed. We never see, however, that the girl’s father breaks his word and betroths her to a wealthier suitor—only guess something is wrong when the boy, seeking the girl, approaches her friends, and they cover their faces.
The scenes we do see are compelling. They’re set before a series of subtly decorated golden backdrops by Reuben Ter-Arutunian. Patricia Zipprodt’s black and white costumes contrast purity with darkness. The seven men who represent the fellow Talmudic students of the hero (Chanon in the play) wear black hats and long, filmy black coats over white unitards. Three men billed as “Angelic Messengers” are garbed in white unitards with black strips (later red ones) hanging from their arms. Chanon and his Leah wear white clothes when they dream of each other, and in the terrifying duet when his soul enters her body, they’re dressed in identical loose-fitting, filmy white gowns.
Bernstein’s insistent rhythms for the men’s dances are overlaid with melodies drawn from Jewish folk music, and Robbins has designed the steps to convey a powerful rigidity; the men form lines and chains, their arms squared off, their feet flexed, as if in some orderly, joyless folk dance.
In the scene, when Chanon invokes the Kabbalah, hoping to cast a spell that will make Leah his, they slither in like dark thoughts and fan their hands out around him. Robbins created brilliant little variations for four of the men (Sean Suozzi, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Antonio Carmena, and Jonathan Stafford); each of these suggests a lesson (or part of a spell) to which Chanon listens intently, echoing the last gesture. Clearly terrified of what he’s attempting, he persists, but perishes in the white heat of it.
We know that his spirit is about to enter Leah when suddenly, surrounded by admiring maidens, on what might be her wedding day, she throws aside a veil that’s ceremoniously brought, arches her body sideways in one of Chanon’s tormented jumps and presses her hands to her temples just as he did. The ensuing duet suggests, as far as possible, that he’s worming his way into her body, possessing her. Eventually they really seem to have merged; when they face away from each other in arabesque, their raised legs are locked together. After the community arrives for the exorcism, the pair tiptoe joined, as they thread through the ritual. The dybbuk is forced to retreat. But, in a stunning coup de théâtre, he reappears as if by magic among the cluster of black-clad men and claims his beloved in death.
Bernstein’s score suffuses Dybbuk with color and drama, and his music often meshes intimately with Robbins’s choreography. The maidens’ finger-snapping, for instance, is part of the score’s rhythmic pattern. When the man who performs the fourth variation in the “Invocation of the Kabbalah” knocks the back of his hand against the air several times, a tambourine emphasizes the gesture. The occasional intertwined voices of a baritone and bass baritone (Christopher Schaldenbrand and Philip Horst) potently evoke Chassidic ceremony.
Robbins obviously intended ritual to shape the ballet. His protagonists are the only expressive figures in a society that never reveals its feelings. It’s impossible not to identify with their obsessions and torments—marvelously conveyed by Millepied and Ringer—and wish to understand them more fully. Still, if you embrace the dark residue of plot and the sense of the occult that Robbins and Bernstein convey so uncannily well, this fragmentary tale of fatal love can hold you in its grip.
Dybbuk will be performed February 7 and 10, during NYCB’s spring season, and at Saratoga this summer.