A Triple Feast of Jerome Robbins

May 18, 2008

This spring, New Yorkers are enjoying a three-pronged feast of Robbins at Lincoln Center. First and most accessible is the exhibit at the NY Library for the Performing Arts. Second and most dancy is the New York City Ballet season celebrating Robbins and his ballets—33 of them! Third and most rushed is the exhibit of photos on four levels of New York State Theater, which you have to race through during intermissions.

    Now is the time to come to NYC for anyone with the least bit interest in this great American choreographer. His range is astounding. His feeling for the human heart in all its feistiness and vulnerability is extraordinary.

    If you go to the exhibit at the library, “New York Story: Jerome Robbins & His World,” you’ll see photos, posters, letters, and sketches from every part of his life and work. And costumes too, for instance the slightly scary costume for The Cage, with a lumpy intestinal object snaking around the front of the leotard. But what will catch you most of all, is the bank of six video monitors, all playing at once. You can tune in to an excerpt of Peter Pan where Sondra Lee is the go-for-broke Tiger Lily in a sneaky, fun, brilliantly crafted “Indian” dance (“Ugawug, ugawug, ugawug, ugawug, Waaaaaaaaaaahhhh”). You can see the Jets from West Side Story doing the cool, jazzy, desperate, ray, “Cool” number on the Ed Sullivan show. And you can see how a certain crouching move fits well for both Tiger Lily and the Jets.

    There’s a clip Jerome Robbins rehearsing Peter Martins in Afternoon of a Faun where the dancer thrusts out his hand, brings the other hand to it, and slowly brings both hands in. He shows Martins how it’s like pressing your hand to a mirror and finding it cold to the touch. (Next time I see it live I’m going to watch closely how the male dancer does that move.)

    You see Robbins rehearsing Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, chanting a relentless litany of counts. You can see a film of the original cast of the hilarious The Concert, with Todd Bolender as the cartoonish husband creeping up on his wife wildly weilding a knife. You can see an interview with Robbins in which he says that famous quote of Balanchine’s, something like “We as choreographers get our fingertips into that place where there are no words for things.” The exhibit, which is curated by historian and Dance Magazine senior advising editor Lynn Garafola, is up until June 28.

    In terms of the NYCB’s spring season’s “Celebration of Jerome Robbins,” it’s just gotten under way, but I’ve already seen Opus 19: The Dreamer, with Gonzalo Garcia (finally, a role that’s perfect for him) and Wendy Whelan (who is beautiful in everything, no matter how many times she gets clobbered by the New York Times critic). I saw Les Noces, which is an amazing ballet (even if Robbins himself thought it wasn’t as good as Nijinska’s original). Watching Tyler Peck hold a totally still deep plié in first, without wavering an iota, reflects the kind of intensity Robbins wanted for his ritualistic dances. There are so many ballets I want to see again like Dances at a Gathering and The Concert, or see for the first time, like The Four Seasons and Brandenburg.

    And for part three of this feast, there are iconic photos of the young Robbins cavorting with Maria Tallchief on the beach, dancing Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, and rehearsing with Patricia McBride. And some quite recent ones too, showing the current principals Jenifer Ringer, Janie Taylor, Benjamin Millepied in Robbins work. And hundreds more.

    I am of the persuasion that learning about Robbins is essential for any dancer today. If you cannot get to NYC, just open up your May issue of Dance Magazine, and read “Capturing the Heart” by Joseph Carmen about why dancers get so much out of working with “Jerry.” (Or, you can go to the internet version, called Reliving Robbins.) Yes, he was demanding to the point of sometimes being abusive, but every dancer who worked with him learned so much about performance, character, entertainment, and art.