A Double Celebration of Jerome Robbins
A cornucopia of riches tumbled out at New York City Ballet last Friday. Not only was the dancing of this all-Robbins program fantastic, but also 26 female stars from up and down the decades trouped onstage to receive the Jerome Robbins Award.
The program itself gave a glimpse into three different aspects of Robbins’ gigantic oeuvre—though only one of my favorite Robbins pieces was on it.
First, 2 & 3 Part Inventions. I love this Bach music so much (listening to the Glenn Gould recording every morning got me through college) that I can’t bear to see dancing to it. Plus, it seems to be the piece where Robbins most obviously tried to be Balanchine: the chivalry, the clean lines, the sections that begin with four boys facing front (as in Agon). But I actually liked this ballet more than usual this time.
Lauren Lovette stood out, and Ashley Laracey danced a solo with beautiful openness. But Robbins’ choreography depends so much on the canon form of the music that it’s a relief when it does something else. My favorite section was the one where one boy (and the cast was so young that they were definitely boys and girls, which is fair enough because it was originally made for SAB, not the company) shadows another boy as he partners Lovette. And then they hand her off, graciously allowing the other to partner her. This is where Robbins’ inventiveness kicks in—as soon as he drops the canon form and concentrates on relationships between people.
The moment I saw Wendy Whelan onstage for In Memory of… I thought, Now here is a real artist. Her onstage presence goes wayyyy beyond the usual ballet aesthetic of clean lines and pleasant demeanor. She is so fully engaged, her mind and body so fully integrated, that she pulls you in like a magnet. Every arm movement blossomed with such fullness that I wondered for a minute if she had turned into a Russian ballerina. (A friend in the audience suggested that Whelan’s been influenced by her work with Ratmansky.) Her special alertness is never an overlay, it just goes with her movement.
In Memory Of
is a strange ballet. The lead woman has a different partner in each half, the first guy being good and the second being somehow evil. (The latter is a death figure, but I was thinking maybe he’s a rapist.) A group of people drift in and out, wearing the same muted colors as in Robbins’ ballet Antique Epigraphs.
So, OK, it’s not one of his great works. But Whelan’s dancing/acting was superb. She made each duet as drastically different as Odette and Odile. Jared Angle was the first, harmless partner, and Charles Askegard played the second harmful one, with a boldness that I hadn’t seen in him.
After the second intermission, Chita Rivera—an SAB student before she became one of the greatest stage artists of our time—took the stand and talked about working with Jerome Robbins. (“I would have jumped out a fourth-floor window if he’d asked me to.”) And then, one at a time, she announced the names of all the NYCB ladies who are splitting the $100,000 Jerome Robbins award.
It was thrill after thrill when favorite dancers from the past walked to center stage to take a bow: Patty McBride, Violette Verdy, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Kay Mazzo, Kyra Nichols, and more. Wendy Whelan also joined them. When Farrell and Kirkland held hands, we all melted. When Jenifer Ringer breezed in, already wearing the lavender dress for her stint as Anita in the next act, Chita Rivera spontaneously reached out to her—well, to the dress. “I know that dress!” she blurted out.
The beauty and depth of artistry that this lineup represented was overwhelming. We gave them a standing ovation, and then later, when they filed back into the audience, we gave them a hand again.
And then, well then, we did see one of my favorite Robbins ballets. West Side Story Suite is not so much a ballet as a string of seven scenes from Robbins’ epic musical West Side Story. This is Robbins at his best. Each section packs an emotional wallop. The Prologue is exciting, the Rumble is devastating, and the Somewhere Ballet stirs hopefulness. Robert Fairchild, in his first time as Riff, was terrific, like he was born to dance it—and sing it. He’s one of the few men in the company who can pull off looking like a gang kid and not a ballet kid. And Jenifer Ringer, even sassier and rhythmically sharp than I remember her as Anita, was just delicious.
What a night! As an aftermath that’s available to all, see the list of 26 awardees (really 30, counting those who passed away), here. This site also includes a quote from each dancer about working with “Jerry.” We’ve all heard so many negative stories about Robbins that it’s nice to hear the good parts of working with the man who gave us, again and again, theatrical experiences that reach the depths—and heights—of human feeling.
The 2011 Robbins Award recipients, with Chita Rivera in the middle. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.