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How to Nail the Mad Ballerina Role in Robbins’ Funniest Ballet

In last week’s all-Robbins program at New York City Ballet, we got a slice of his many terrific ballets, each one unique in its boldness. The triple bill at Lincoln Center included the beautifully crafted Glass Pieces; the intense—and intensely silent—Moves; and the hilarious romp The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody).

Sterling Hyltin in Jerome Robbins' The Concert, photo © Paul Kolnik

It is this last one I want to talk about. Everything about The Concert is a delight, from the onstage pianist (played with delicious frumpiness by Elaine Chelton) to the guffaw-inducing “Mistake Waltz,” to the poignant umbrella scene.

The basic “plot” of this 1956 ballet is that various characters straggle in to listen to a concert pianist playing Chopin, and they are each in their own private world. Last week Sterling Hyltin played the starring role, the loopy lady with ballerina fantasies, to the hilt. Carried away by the beautiful music, she is the gateway to a string of brilliantly wacky episodes.

Hyltin in The Concert, photo © Paul Kolnik

The role was made for Tanaquil LeClercq, the glamorous French dancer who was married to Balanchine in the 50s. But it has also been done—with comedic flair—in different decades by Allegra Kent, Stephanie Saland and Maria Kowroski.

I asked Saland what she remembers about dancing this role when Robbins was still alive. (She was with NYCB from 1972 to 1993, the last nine years as principal, and is now a master teacher in Seattle.)

Stephanie Saland in an undated photo © Daniel Sorine

“He called it the mad ballerina role,” she said. “The comedic aspects only work when we do not play to the joke, but believe her thoroughly. It was so much fun, although Jerry was phenomenally particular about timing, especially with comedic work.”

While coaching her in the scene where she gets chased by the cigar-chomping, two-timing husband, Robbins told her to watch Maya Plisetskaya on video. He wanted Saland to capture that silent-movie style of drama, with big eyes and exaggerated gestures.

Her favorite scene was when her character tries on different hats. “Jerry was very precise about where you look and when you slump with disappointment. And when they put the ridiculous fluffy blue hat on you, you just know it’s right for you.” Saland says she actually started making her own hats after dancing the role.

Hyltin, on the other hand, says in this charming clip from NYCB that the hat-changing scene was the most difficult for her.

The Concert is widely recognized as the funniest ballet ever made. It’s been in the repertories of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and more. Needless to say, it requires dancers who have a knack for comedy, and they are hard to come by. But when it clicks, everyone in the audience and onstage become deliriously happy.

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