Jerome Robbins: An American Icon

Jerome Robbins: An American Icon
“2 & 3 Part Inventions” / “A Suite of Dances” / “In Memory Of …” / “I’m Old Fashioned”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
January 20, 2007

by Susan Reiter
copyright 2007, Susan Reiter

Given the 53-year span of Jerome Robbins’ roster of ballets, this program stuck to a limited period: an eleven-year span during the final fifteen years of his life. The works from the 1980s — “I’m Old Fashioned” (1983) and “In Memory Of” (1985) come from the period following the amazing burst of inspiration that marked the ballets he created when he returned to the New York City Ballet in 1969. He choreographed a few more after those before giving us what seemed to be a valedictory work — “Ives, Songs” in 1988, and embarking on his landmark retrospective “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” Fortunately, he did return to the ballet studio for a final series of revelatory works to Bach.

For the first of these, “2 & 3 Part Inventions,” he drew on the more innocent, unmannered dancing of senior students at the School of American Ballet — as usual, his eye for spotting burgeoning talent and individuality was unfaltering, as he gave a very young Benjamin Millepied and Kristina Fernandez prominent roles—and enjoyed the ample, less pressured rehearsal period afforded by creating it for the School’s1994 Workshop performances. It’s a work of charm and translucent beauties — a work rubbed clean of any excess or unnecessary activity, in which he seems to have found endless, felicitous possibilities through clarity and counterpoint. The familiar Bach works, designed to educate pianists through the use of multiple, contrapuntal voices, were an ideal choice for the freshness and responsiveness of the student dancers.

Transferred to NYCB, it has never had quite the same dewy spontaneity, but this all-new cast captured much of its bright innocence and crisp musical authority. Rebecca Krohn’s languid, attenuated attack was not ideal for the role originated by Fernandez—the dancer discovered onstage, standing still but full of anticipation, when the curtain rises, who is left back in the same position when the finale brilliantly unspools the opening sequence in reverse. (But then, Wendy Whelan, already an established principal dancer, seemed an unlikely choice for the role when it first entered NYCB’s repertory.) But Tiler Peck’s bounding energy and fleet attack, and Sterling Hyltin’s sweet enthusiasm and springy verve were excellently showcased. Ana Sophia Scheller seemed less at ease, especially after she hit a slippery spot on stage.

Tyler Angle, whose stage presence often comes across as imperturbable and somewhat muted, displayed a lovely openness and warmth, in Millepied’s role, and his playful duet with Amar Ramasar was a highlight. Ramasar was especially at home in the guileless, gently playful tone of the work, while Jonathan Stafford and Seth Orza completed the quartet of men. The lovely visual equivalents Robbins found for Bach’s interweaving piano lines and fugal patterns came across with gracious purity, and it was a pleasure to see this work back on stage.

The same is true for Damian Woetzel—making his first appearance this season aside form the opening night gala—and the work he performed, “A Suite of Dances.” Also created in 1994, for Mikhail Baryshnikov, this casual yet persuasive solo is performed with the cellist — in my experience, always a female musician — onstage, and Woetzel made it very much an animated dialogue between himself and the exemplary Ann Kim. Reclining at her feet when the curtain rises, he seemed to issue a challenge as she moved to her downstage chair, and once he began dancing, his deft alertness to her playing made his dancing seem to emerge almost improvisationally from the Bach music.

The choreography had a more weighted, folk-flavored tone when Baryshnikov performed it. Woetzel’s innate zest and buoyancy serve it differently but equally well, and his long history with many Robbins roles enables him to get inside the movement and imbue it with whimsy, introspection or brash impudence, as needed. He ended the meditative adagio that is the third section with a beautiful simple series of arm gestures, lifting one hand above the other and then lowering one wistfully just as the very last note played. He then gave a particularly robust interpretation of the playful final section, in which he chugs back and forth along a central path, embroidering the initially simple movements with increasing fillips and variations.

After these two pared-to-the-essence, smaller-scaled works, the program moved into more expansive territory. “In Memory Of,” performed as it was last season by Wendy Whelan, Seth Orza and Charles Askegard, remains a poignant work filled with lulls until the gripping, almost demonic duet in which Askegard as the implacable, conquering Death figure grabs and twists the heroine through endlessly surprising sequences. The ensemble section in the first movement feels bland and aimless; Robbins here seemed to be searching for a wistful communal pull that he achieved with greater success in “Ives, Songs.” Whelan gave herself with limpid devotion to the role, her usual sharp, bracing power subdued so that this wistful young woman seemed at the mercy of the people and forces around her. Orza partnered with gracious modesty, exuding an aura of protective caring as he led her through more innocent times, until her fate overtook her.

“I’m Old Fashioned” always leaves the audience happy when it closes a program, but it, too, has its longueurs, especially when the leading roles receive less than vivid interpretations. Maria Kowrowski was both glamorous and witty, and Jenifer Ringer brought richly romantic presence and personable warmth. But there must be someone who can convey the vernacular flavor of the man in red’s role more naturally than the miscast Philip Neal.Bart Cook was a marvel as the original in this role, and his solo included elements form “Fancy Free,” a work in which he excelled at the time. Neal attacked its percussive games and syncopations gamely, but did not look comfortable. Stephen Hanna brought snap and a bit of Hollywood flair to his solo, and partnered Ringer with ease and flair. The big finale, when the full cast dance their version of the Astaire-Hayworth duet beneath the giant image of their timeless nonchalance and understatedly sexy byplay, works more as an idea than as an effect. “I’m Old Fashioned” has its moment, but never quite succeeds as a sum of its parts.

Volume 5, No. 4
January 22, 2007

copyright ©2007 Susan Reiter

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