A Quick Overview of Robbins
As I write, the Festival of Jerome Robbins’ Ballets, given by Robbins’s former company, New York City Ballet, at the New York State Theater, is just about midway through. It has been wonderful, unique, and eye-opening.
Wonderful because, although almost all these twenty-seven ballets (plus the excerpts from American Ballet Theatre’s Les Noces) have been recently seen in the repertoire-the only exceptions were Mother Goose, the now nearly legendary Watermill, and, absent for at least two or three seasons, Dances at a Gathering- they had all been rehearsed to such a pitch of organized spontaneity that they came up like cleaned paintings at an exhibition, as dandy-fresh as at their premieres.
Unique because, while every week at NYCB virtually constitutes a Jerome Robbins
mini-festival-sharing the stage with the George Balanchine mini-festival-these two weeks of Robbins and nothing but Robbins not only shone a possibly once-in-a-lifetime spotlight on the choreographer’s versatility, they also gave us an odd sense of what might have happened had Robbins not rejoined NYCB in 1969 or had not formed his American Theatre Laboratory earlier but had persevered with his own troupe, Ballets: U.S.A. Revealingly, very few of these festivals ballets demanded more dancers than Robbins had in his medium-sized chamber group.
Finally, it was eye-opening simply because it was there. It forced attention on Robbins as the current master classical choreographer throughout the world-and the only twentieth-century master to be compared in the same breath with Michel Fokine, Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, and Antony Tudor. His importance is either denied of denigrated by some would-be fashionable American critics, who are primarily acolytes only to Balanchine together with certain modernists, but it was difficult to deny, downplay, or ignore this quite spectacular panoply of dance called Robbins. Robbins’s career has virtually encompassed the entire span of the history of indigenous American classical ballet and thus become a paradigm for its dancing times-first as a performer and choreographer and then, of course, simply as a choreographer, not only in classic ballet but also, in a virtually parallel career, on Broadway.
Although he gave up dancing comparatively early and was never a consummate classical technician (he wasn’t that bad, either; remember, he originated the brilliant
razzmatazz solo in his early ballet Interplay), his characterizations-comic, as in Helen
of Troy, Bourree Fantasque, and Three Virgins and a Devil; or serious, as in that Auden eclogue, The Age of Anxiety-glowed with presence. No one who ever saw his Petrouchka could ever forget it-it had a forlorn, sawdust agony I can still vividly summon to memory after more than forty years.
As a choreographer, the real Robbins is probably a cast of the mind rather than the
style of a ballet. The major influence on him has obviously been Balanchine, but it was an influence exerted by example and manner rather than precept and style. He absorbed from Balanchine, as if by osmosis, a deep reverence for classical dance. In time he became so profoundly aware of pure classicism, so cheerfully versed in its disciplines, that eventually, like Balanchine and a few of their peers, he was able to create inventively, apparently intuitively, on its theme.
The distinguishing mark of Robbins’s work is not so much any stylistic or artistic
profile but his sense of humanity and his genius, which transform mere choreography into a poetic image that transcends mimetic characterization. This can be seen as pungently in the 1944 Fancy Free as in the 1988 Ives, Songs and runs like a thread of gold through virtually every work that makes up his considerable oeuvre.
These two aspects of Robbins’s work-call them humanity and poetry or relate them to character and image – become particularly evident in his approach to comedy, as witnessed by The Concert, probably the funniest ballet ever made. Significantly, its characters are real people with real foibles. Their reality is realized essentially by the
choreography, but it also depends upon the most delicate observation of human
nature and its interplay with the dancing. This kind of dance-drama connection had been made by other classical choreographers, such as Fokine and Tudor, the latter obviously having a very definite influence on the young Robbins. But Robbins made that connection with a specifically American Accent.
The understanding of Robbins’s concept and practice of Americanism is essential to
fully comprehending a career that actually started as a conscious gesture against the Russianization of his own first company, American Ballet Theatre. Yet this went far deeper than any kind of simplistic Americana-Robbins was never interested in cowboys of any of the genre subject matter that people once confused with dance, American-style.
Robbins’s originality-and his genius-was to fold the jazzy and the folksy riches of
American vernacular dance into ballet. Other choreographers attempted similar approaches, but it was Robbins’s work that definitively succeeded. Even as early as Interplay, only his second ballet, American classical dance had found its own pop dialect- a dialect that not only profoundly influenced Broadway but also left its mark on classical ballet both here and abroad.
Seeing the various ballets unfold at this festival, it was possible, indeed inevitable, to
have a few regrets. Although the programming ran the gamut from his first ballet, Fancy Free, to his latest Ives, Songs, the emphasis was solidly placed on the last twenty years- certainly the most productive period- Robbins spent with NYCB.
There was very little from the early days- no Age of Anxiety, no The Guests, or
even his first major collaboration with Balanchine, Jones Beach. Not even that
irrepressible little jazz ballet, The Pied Piper. Then again, apart from Moves- that revealingly named “ballet about relationships to silence”- nothing was offered from the Ballets: U.S.A. repertoire, not N.Y. Export: Op. Jazz (a seminal work, offering a fascinating and valuable comparison with Interplay) or Events. Finally, except for Fancy Free, there was nothing really from ABT, neither Facsimile (which I personally wouldn’t at all mind seeing again) nor the complete Les Noces, where the opportunity might have been taken to use the great Sean Kenny setting, originally envisaged when the ballet was going to be created from Britain’s Royal Ballet and later used by the Royal Swedish Ballet.
With all these gaps- made inevitable, I presume, by time and money- this was not a
Robbins ballet retrospective on quite the same scale as that offered his contribution to Broadway dance in last season’s musical extravaganza Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Even so, while not a full-scale retrospective, this gorgeous sixteen-performance festival certainly served as a quick overview of Robbins and made a wonderful showcase for the most fecund and imaginative talent American classical ballet has ever produced. Sometimes Robbins is referred to as a perfectionist- as if the demands such people make are somehow over demanding- but if it takes a perfectionist to create this kind of perfection, so be it. NYCB responded to the demands like the company we know it to be- and, so far as I could tell, the perfectionist was granted, pretty much, perfection.