When Silence Is the Best Music

June 10, 2008

I just saw NYCB dance Jerome Robbins’
which has the subtitle “a ballet in silence.” Each time I see it, I can feel myself sitting on the edge of my seat. Robbins has used silence to create a certain kind of drama. It’s not the drama of cascading music that hints at a place, a time, or a mood. But somehow the silence helps you SEE better. At one point in Moves, four women are onstage, three of them absolutely still. The fourth, lounging on her side upstage, slowly extends a leg along the floor. Simply because of the position of the other three women and the silence, you focus on her and wonder why she is in no rush. At another point, again nothing else is happening except one woman, standing with arms out, turns one palm the other way. The silence is like a magnifying glass to see these details. A man stomping from side to side like the Death figure in The Green Table seems to herald something coming, but maybe it’s just to alert the others to the next move. When, in the beginning, all 10 dancers come forward, put out one hand like a sudden stop sign, then cross that hand with the other, and then unfold both hands slowly, it seems like just a rhythm thing: sharp, sharp, slowwww. But when they do it again at the end of the dance, they seem to be saying, “I have shown you all I have. I have no secrets.” And yet, because they are in unison, they are also saying, “We are all as one. We need each other.” Or maybe they are saying, “We need each other. We don’t need music.”

And yet in all his other work, Robbins DID need music. He was inspired by Chopin and made the most beautiful dances anyone made to Chopin since Fokine’s Les Sylphides
(think of Dances at a Gathering, Other Dances, and In the Night). And he was inspired by Leonard Bernstein (think of Fancy Free, West Side Story, and The Dybbuk).

My friend who came with me was amazed that this dance was made in 1959. It has such a contemporary look. Maybe that’s because Robbins wasn’t trying to be jazzy or upbeat like he was in some of the other pieces he made in the 50s. And it must have been hard for him to let go of narrative, because he “needed” narrative as much as he needed music. Anyway, I think
is one of his best works and I wish it would be in the repertoire always.