The Lore of “Dances at a Gathering”

January 16, 2014

When Jerome Robbins showed George Balanchine his work-in-progress to Chopin music, Mr. B said, “More, make more—like popcorn.”


OK, so maybe you’ve heard that story—or maybe you’ve heard the version where Mr. B says peanuts, not popcorn. But there are some other tidbits you may not know about this divine masterpiece, to have its first performance of New York City Ballet’s winter season this Friday. (Click here to see when it’s on the schedule and also the original cast.)


The hour-long Dances at a Gathering marked Robbins’ return to NYCB in 1969. He’d been away for 12 years, producing Broadway and Hollywood blockbusters like West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof. It was 1969 and everybody was happy to see “Jerry” back. The audience response was immediately ecstatic. Personally, I have been so moved by this ballet that I find the lore of it enticing.


Jerome Robbins with Kay Mazzo, rehearsing
Dances at a Gathering
Photo by Martha Swope, DM Archives


What you might not know

Robbins, who had been on hiatus from NYCB, was so pleased with how radiantly Patricia McBride and Edward Villella were dancing his Afternoon of a Faun (1953) that he decided to make a pas de deux for just those two. And then it grew.


He was thinking of having the music orchestrated, but Balanchine urged him to use just a pianist.


Robbins’ first idea for a title was Dances: Chopin, in the Open Air.


The same night that DAAG had its unofficial premiere, Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine’s muse and obsession, was ousted from the company. Her husband, Paul Mejia, was supposed to step in to Symphony in C for Edward Villella, who opted to concentrate his energies on the DAAG premiere. But Mr. B barred Mejia from dancing, and Farrell declared that if Mejia didn’t dance, she wouldn’t either. Balanchine’s reaction was to fire them both. Farrell did not return until five years later.


Also that night, a first: Robbins, watching from the audience, was so moved by the way “Eddie” danced his first solo that he left his seat and ran backstage to tell Villella how beautifully he had done it.


Violette Verdy in
Dances at a Gathering
Photo by Martha Swope, DM Archives



• Violette Verdy: “For all the praise I get dancing that solo, I always answer, ‘You should have seen Jerry create that and dance it—he was unbelievable.’ I couldn’t begin to copy.”


Robbins watches Allegra Kent and John Clifford
Photo by Martha Swope, DM Archives


• Allegra Kent:  “The dances sprang into being from emotions felt during a walk, an upward look or a touch of the floor.”


• Robbins’ note to himself during the making of DAAG: “Never make up a step. Always make a sequence of movement.”


Robbins with Patricia McBride

Photo by Martha Swope, DM Archives


Abstract or Narrative?


About the beginning, he told Villella, “It’s as if it’s the last time you’ll ever dance in this theater, in this space. And this is your home, the place you know…I don’t want to overstate this, but it’s almost as if the atom bomb is going to fall. Everything is going to change.”


Dances at a Gathering, circa 1987
Photo by Paul Kolnik, DM Archives


At the end of the ballet, all 10 dancers walk out onstage and watch something overhead, something that moves across the sky. Dancer Sara Leland quotes Robbins: “Just look as if you’re looking over the horizon at all [the land] you own. Then a storm begins but it doesn’t frighten you; it just happens to be there. And so you turn and you watch it.”


And yet Robbins has said, “There are no stories…to Dances at a Gathering. There are no plots and no roles. The dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space.” He has also said, “I don’t want the audience to fix on it one way.”


My own view is that a choreographer will tell a dancer whatever he needs to in order to elicit a certain emotional tone.



Critical Raves

• “It is as honest as breathing and as graceful as larksong.” — Clive Barnes, The New York Times


• “The music and the dance seem to be inventing each other.” —Edwin Denby, Dance Magazine, July 1969


•  “Although the dancers begin to interest us as individuals  through their expression of melancholy, playful, whimsical, or daring moods, glorious dancing is really the point.” —Nancy Goldner, Christian Science Monitor


Robbins’ own summation

“It celebrates love & being & togetherness—a rather astonishingly optimistic view in the face of today’s fearsome events.” [e.g. the Vietnam War]  … “DAAG is full of the things I loved about dancing and about being Jewish.” [My guess is that he meant the warm feeling of a small village in the old world, which he got when, at 6 years old, he visited the Eastern European shtetl where his parents grew up.]


• Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance,
by Deborah Jowitt, pub. Simon & Schuster

• Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins,
by Amanda Vaill, pub. Broadway Books

•  “Dancers at a Gathering” by Allegra Kent, Dance Magazine, Feb. 2001

• No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century,
by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press

• Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet,
by Jenifer Ringer, to be published in Feb. 2014 by Viking

• Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet,
by Nancy Reynolds, pub. The Dial Press

• Holding On to the Air,
by Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley, University Press of Florida

• Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic,
by Edward Villella with Larry Kaplan, pub. Simon & Schuster

• Jerome Robbins Foundation and Trust

• “Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About,” PBS American Masters documentary