An Evening of Jerome Robbins At New York City Ballet
Oh hell yes. Because those cherished things NYCB is known for, the discipline, the polish, the precision, are the very things which can kill the joy of the dance.
First up was Fancy Free, always a crowd pleaser for any company performing it. This is an early piece, made when Robbins was dancing with the company now known as ABT. Perhaps that's why it seems, to me, an odd fish for a Balanchine company. That, and the fact that Fancy Free is a bravura turn for the men, rather than a showcase for the women. In the case of NYCB, the women are the downfall. The polish and precision makes them seem too sophisticated for what should be an exuberant and boisterous piece.
Fancy Free is literally a liberty call. Three sailors cut loose for twenty-four hours in the Big Apple, more than ready for booze, broads, and a brawl. Even a brawl amongst themselves will do, given the number of times the girls have to intervene. Yet on this night it starts out with the trademark NYCB precision and discipline, three dancers who are supposed to characterize three distinct personalities execute the choreography as if it were close order drill. Even the heights of the three men in this cast, combined with the choreography, added to the cookie cutter feeling, as there were certain phrases in which they appeared lined up like canisters on a kitchen counter - small, medium, and large. These three gave us all the technical thrills, but not much of the joy.
As if being cast in an evening's homage to the master were too great a burden to bear.
The one attempt at characterization, this night, fell flat for me. The Third Sailor, instead of being the macho Latino, when stealing the first girl's purse, hangs it off his shoulder and minces about, more of a precursor to "Some Like it Hot" than "On the Town." By the time they reach their dancing duels, the impression was that he was dancing for the attention of his sailor buddies, rather than their female companions.
Made their wild chase after the final girl a bit unbelievable. Brilliant dancing, but dulled by a lack of character coaching..
Now I'm usually the first to start yowling and sharpening the claws when a choreographer thinks they're so clever and so brilliant they don't need no stinkin' music. In most cases the yowling is justified because those choreographers are dead wrong. But in this case, there appears to have been method in Robbins' madness.
I've done a fair amount of reading on Jerome Robbins, and I don't recall this work being mentioned. Likely it was upstaged by Opus Jazz. Perhaps it was simply too avant garde in a decade which had seen its fill of such experimental stuff.
I found the whole thing fascinating. Here is a piece in which that discipline, polish and precision work in favor of the performance. There is no story to tell - in fact, Robbins' own words, used in the program notes, invite the audience to interpret the piece any way they wish, unimpeded by any musical suggestions. My strongest feeling was that Robbins took the Balanchine aesthetic - ballet is woman - turned it on its ear and played with it. Almost, but not quite a thumb to the nose. In fact, Robbins here gives the impression he could do Balanchine better than Balanchine. While I also caught a few whiffs of Martha Graham here and there, it was an earlier pioneer who exuded a stronger presence for me.
I fancied the ghost of Nijinsky in the wings, sweating, shaking, shouting out the counts to keep the dancers synchronized. After all, if fate had been kinder to him, it's possible this might have been Nijinsky's company.
Third time pays for all, and in this performance of The Concert, the company showed off all their trademarks, plus an ability to have fun on stage. The joy of dance finally came through, even though it took them most of the night to let it out.