Theater archives

Celebrating Jerome Robbins and Bidding Damian Woetzel Goodbye


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.

Actually, in this revival, I wondered if they weren’t eroding almost too much. Reconstructions of Oscar de la Renta’s costumes (tights and blousy shirts for the men, sleeveless dresses for the women) blur the color differences between the greens (led by Angle and Sara Mearns) and the blues (captained by Garcia and Stafford). Instead of the pale blue costumes worn at the premiere (at least by the principals and the demi-soloists), this blue is deeper and closer to the green. It would be fun to be able to know for sure that it’s Tharp’s rambunctious green men who swing Stafford dangerously around and that it’s the blue men retaliating when they carry Mearns offstage, she laboriously turning herself and clambering around atop their shoulders. Maybe the downplaying of differences was a deliberate decision. Otherwise why cast Angle, an elegant and princely dancer, in a role built on Bart Cook, a naturally ruggeder and spunkier performer, while Garcia, warmer and wittier, plays the guy in blue? (Angle, however, deserves praise for the gusto with which he attacks Tharp’s impudent eccentricities, and the devilish duet with Mearns comes off well). On one viewing, it’s my impression that the dancers—magnificent all— need some coaching by a Tharp expert.

Brahms/Handel keeps your eyes racing around, tracking counterpoint and family resemblances through a delirious maelstrom of dancing, with occasional sober unison patterns and mix-and-match duets. The moods change as swiftly as they do in musical variations that encompass friskiness, sweetness, turbulence and a certain triumphant pomposity. People hurtle on and off the stage, fall into one another’s arms, bolt into the air, and engage in daring, fleeting interactions. Everything comes together in the final fugue by the end of which you’re almost too dizzy to stand up and cheer. This program will be presented again upstate at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in July.

It’s fitting that Damian Woetzel, still in his artistic prime at 41, chose to give his last performance during the Robbins Celebration. He has said that seeing and loving Robbins’s ballets was what prompted him to enroll in NYCB’s affiliate School of American Ballet in 1984 as a teenager (he was invited to join the company only six weeks later). Two of the roles he chose to appear in on June 18th were ones danced by Robbins himself: the third sailor in the choreographer’s 1944 Fancy Free and the biblical rebel in Balachine’s 1929 Prodigal Son.

For Balanchine’s Rubies (from Jewels), he engineered changes in casting so that Megan Fairchild and Garcia were the principal couple in the first movement, Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz (the only ones named in the program) took over for the second movement, and, to the delight of the crowd, Woetzel himself bounded on with Yvonne Borree to lead the third.

Woetzel is one of those rare dancers who downplays effort. Maybe that, too, attracted him to Robbins’s oeuvre. He can make even the most difficult step look as natural and easy as walking (although much, much less boring), and, although he’s elegantly proportioned enough to carry off princely roles, I get the impression they’re not his favorites. He excels at the sprightly, the witty, the all-American. Both Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon capitalized on his easy-going charm and virtuosity and his sensitivity to the subtleies of drama, and the Balanchine roles he was often cast in exploited those qualities (a cowboy in Western Symphony, “El Capitan” in Stars and Stripes, and the sly, bravura roles in ballets like Rubies).

At his farewell performance, with Taylor Angle and De Luz as his buddies, he inhabited his role in Fancy Free with all the requisite braggadocio and naivete. Seldom has the New York skyline looked as intoxicatingly big as it did to his sailor on leave, and never have I seen the barroom duet (with Tiler Peck as Woetzel’s sweetly accommodating partner) look so increasingly tender and—in a questioning and exploratory way—so sexy. In Rubies, dancing the role created on Edward Villella, he was wonderfully buoyant, and rhythmically acute in terms of the Stravinsky score. The choreography calls for a dancer who can make virtuosity into a sharp-witted romp, a stroll with pals, and a happy dialogue with his girl. That’s Woertzel.

But he shrugs himself out of all that ease when he takes on Prodigal Son. His is one of the deepest, most nuanced performances I’ve seen. How wonderfully he portrays the angry restlessness of the hero at the ballet’s outset! His huge leaps toward imagined freedom show both how confined he feels by family tradition and how elated he is at the prospect of a life beyond home. He puts his technique at the service of the story; you can marvel at how he pauses, suspended, at the end of a pirouette before falling into rebellious stomping, but his timing also expresses the cleft between a hoped-for future and present reality. When the goons who accompany the Siren (an imposing Maria Kowroski) begin to make nice to him for their own nasty purposes, he’s so touchingly proud of himself for imitating their coarse movements that you want to yell “Watch out!” And as the chastened hero crawls home, he sets each knee down with a clunk that makes you understand why they are bloody and how doggedly he has to drive himself forward.

Of course, the audience didn’t want to let him go—even after the flowers, the parade of choreographers who’ve worked with him, the women dancers he’s partnered entering one by one to hug him, the drum roll, and the rain of confetti. When he wasn’t bowing or embracing, he simply stood there—his body easily erect, his arms spread wide. You could imagine that he wasn’t just opening himself gratefully to our applause, but accepting whatever lay ahead. This summer, for the second year, he’ll direct the Vail International Dance Festival. Having earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration at Harvard, he’s not only ready for new roles; he’s prepared. Saying he’ll be missed onstage is putting it mildly.