Jerome Robbins was a man who liked to keep his options open. And he had many of those. He began his professional life as a modern dancer, made it as a Broadway chorus boy, then joined the company now known as American Ballet Theatre shortly after its 1940 debut, and rose through the ranks to become a principal dancer. Yet working on Broadway continued to attract him. Over the nearly three decades following the phenomenal success of his first ballet, Fancy Free (1943), he veered between choreographing musicals and making ballets.
For example, in 1953, he created the delicate duet Afternoon of a Faun for George Balanchine's New York City Ballet (which he had joined five years earlier as a dancer and resident choreographer). And then directed a two-hour television special, the "Ford 50th Anniversary Show," starring Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. His hilarious ballet The Concert premiered in March of 1956; in November, a new musical, Bells Are Ringing, opened on Broadway, crediting him as director and cochoreographer (with Bob Fosse). Also, if a floundering show needed doctoring, its producers knew what to do: Get Jerry Robbins.
The Broadway work involved collaborations: often stressful ones. The ballets paid less well, but he was on his own.
In choreographing his early ballets, Robbins began with a concept, while Balanchine, whom he admired enormously, fashioned worlds out of dancing inspired by music. This is not to say that Robbins wasn't musical. Certainly his Afternoon of a Faun was inspired as much by Ravel's score as by the ballet's original scenario about an encounter between a nymph and a faun. However, he usually began with a narrative that probed relationships and societies, then found, or commissioned, music to fit. When he returned to NYCB in 1968 after a long hiatus (during which he choreographed and directed West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof and choreographed Gypsy), his thinking had changed.
He had spent the better part of 1966 through the spring of 1968 closeted five days a week with a carefully selected group of actor-dancers, wondering if he could develop a new form of lyric theater. The many structured improvisations and experimental projects that developed in what was called the American Theater Laboratory may have loosened him up in some way. When he approached Balanchine and NYCB's co-director Lincoln Kirstein in 1968 about choreographing a ballet, he began, not with a grand plan, but with two dancers, Patricia McBride and Edward Villella, and the Chopin piano music he had always loved (and explored very differently in The Concert!). Those sessions in a studio culminated in the glorious 1969 Dances at a Gathering: an hour-long work graced by the comings and goings of ten splendid performers in what we could imagine was a sunny meadow with the occasional passing cloud. These people's steps: especially in the mazurkas: sometimes hinted at Polish folk dances they (and Chopin) had known. This masterwork foreshadowed Robbins's decision to spend the rest of his life choreographing ballets. He was not quite 50 years old.
He was less euphoric when he began, the following year, to work on In the Night: a ballet more beset by tempests than Dances at a Gathering. Robbins was not yet done with Chopin's piano pieces. He had been ill and depressed, and for this work, he chose nocturnes and the ambiance that went with them. The three couples that come together only briefly, at the end of the ballet, display both the excitement and the nostalgia that might simmer during a ball. You can imagine doors that open onto a starry night.
The three pas de deux bring to life three different kinds of relationships between a man and a woman. The pair in the first duet seem thrilled to be dancing with each other in this place, on this occasion, and to this music (Nocturne, Opus. 27, No. 1) played by a pianist. They're dressed in their best, the moon is out, and the night air is full of promise. You can almost sense a breeze that whips them from the music's reverie to its fever.
Robbins cast Kay Mazzo: a dancer who gave the impression of delicacy and innocence: and Anthony Blum in this first duet. The dancers in the second one were Violette Verdy and Peter Martins, who had just left the Royal Danish Ballet to join NYCB. This couple seems more elegant, more mature; theirs is a long-standing love. They're reserved as they enter arm in arm, subtly capturing with their feet and their manner the hint of a folk tune in the initially tranquil nocturne (Opus 55 No. 1). But small whirlwinds of passion erupt, and the man carries his partner offstage in a surprising way. He's walking backward, holding her overhead. Although his hands grasp her waist, she seems to hover over him, almost like a bird of prey: near, yet far away. The image is not conventionally "beautiful," but it is remarkable. And haunting.
Although the love between the third man and his partner is strong, it thrives on tumult and endures ruptures and reconciliations. At the premiere, the dancers were Patricia McBride and Francisco Moncion: she a dewy young principal dancer, he a charter member of the New York City Ballet and, like Robbins himself at the time, slightly over 50 years old. That casting still gives the ballet a faint perfume. It's as if a composed gentleman with a passionately willful young bride has been infected by her wayward emotion. These two come together, fly apart, leave the stage, return. He lifts and spins her in increasingly drastic ways, as if hardly able to control her. The music (Nocturne, Opus 55, No. 2) is a storm they're weathering.
In his own way, Robbins had entered Balanchine's world, letting music tell him what to do and what to discover. In the Night has continued to cast its spell through companies all over the world.
Deborah Jowitt is the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Music, His Dance. Her dance reviews are published at artsjournal.com/dancebeat.