Over the years, many choreographers have contributed works to New York City Ballet's repertory. Some, like Frederick Ashton and William Forsythe, already had international reputations; others, like Christopher Wheeldon and NYCB's current Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins, came up through the ranks and eventually gave up their performing careers for choreography. The mainstays of the Company's repertory, however, remain the ballets of George Balanchine and those of his younger colleague Jerome Robbins, who worked with the company from 1949 to 1956 and from 1969 until his death in 1998.
It was Balanchine who set the Company's style and defined the image of its dancers as unaffected, musically responsive, quick-footed performers who looked as if their legs were a mile long. Robbins came to the Company trailing a high-wattage reputation as a Broadway choreographer and the creator of successful dramatic ballets, such as his 1944 Fancy Free for Ballet Theatre. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, NYCB's co-founders, valued his theatricality and his distinctly American: make that New York: sensibility. Robbins retained those qualities, but he learned from Balanchine that in ballets misleadingly labeled "abstract," fragments of narrative inevitably emerge through the interweaving of music and moving bodies.
Two of the Balanchine masterpieces presented during the last two weeks of NYCB's winter season reflect his boyhood studies in St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet School. In Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 and "Diamonds" (the last section in his magnificent three-part Jewels), which is set to music from Tschaikovsky's Symphony No. 3 in D Major, the choreographer deploys classical ballet's lexicon of steps with ingenuity and originality but also shows us the regal behavior that in ballets of Tschaikovsky's day alluded to the Tsarist court. Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 made its debut in 1941 as Ballet Imperial, and although it acquired its new name and lost its tutus and tiaras in 1973, it retains its innate grandeur. No male dancer yanks his partner around in these works; she is a princess, and he is her devoted cavalier. A group of elegant, lively, well-behaved courtiers frames and abets their delicate interactions. The beautiful pas de deux in both ballets also allude in enigmatic ways to the enchanted swan queen in the 1895 Swan Lake, with its Tschaikovsky score. Often the ballerina seems to be reaching past her devoted partner toward something that calls to her beyond the confines of the stage.
|photo by Paul Kolnik|
Balanchine molded his style to whatever music he chose. "Emeralds" from Jewels is set to excerpts from Gabriel Fauré's tone poems Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock and "Rubies" romps along to Igor Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. The green-clad dancers in "Emeralds" wander through a dreamlike landscape, despite a buoyant dance for a man and two women. A corps de ballet of ten women frames and twines around the principal dancers like the bevies of sea nymphs in bygone fairytale ballets. On the other hand, Balanchine, like Robbins, once worked on Broadway, and the sassy verve with which he matches "Rubies" to Stravinsky's sparkling, jazz-tinged 1929 piece reveals what he learned there. The dancers' legs turn in as often as they turn out; their feet flex as well as point; the women's pointe shoes stab the floor. A man and woman banter as equals, men take off in pursuit of their high-jumping leader, and four guys manipulate a tall showgirl as if amazed at what she can do with those arms and legs.
Johannes Brahms's suite of love-song waltzes carried Balanchine deep into Romanticism. The four tail-coated men of his ravishing 1960 ballet Liebeslieder Walzer and the four women in creamy satin ball gowns and little heeled slippers inhabit a private ballroom, where two pianists and four singers entertain and inspire them, and the 3/4-time steps of the waltz dominate the choreographic patterns. Many duets end on a tender question; one of them has an air of foreboding or intimates that ecstasy might be a kind of death, with the woman laid out across her partner's arms. In the second half, the ballroom has opened into a moonlit garden, a musical dream world, and the women, now with net skirts and pointe shoes, seem transfigured: bolder, lighter, more abandoned; the men can hardly grasp them.
If Liebeslieder Waltzer evokes a 19th-century, upper-class Viennese society, Robbins's 1969 Dances at a Gathering, set to Chopin piano pieces, suggests open fields or a village green. Although certain Chopin mazurkas inspire Robbins to hint at Polish folk dance, nothing telegraphs "peasant life." He shows us beautiful young people: tender and sweetly playful with one another: swayed by the music's moods. As in all his works, Robbins brings a community to life, and in this great ballet, you often sense that the dancers are rediscovering, or remembering, earlier times. When they come together to stare at something in the sky, they seem to share a common wonder or foreboding.
People who aren't ballet fans know Robbins primarily as the man who choreographed, directed, and, in part, conceived the 1957 musical West Side Story. Growing up, Peter Martins had loved the show long before he knew that Robbins made ballets. The fact that Robbins had already produced a condensed version of it for his 1989 retrospective, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, may have convinced the choreographer to yield: finally: to Martins' urging and stage West Side Story Suite for NYCB's 1995 spring season.
The ballet compresses the gangland, Romeo-and-Juliet story into a series of vivid numbers, separated by bows, and with a couple of guest singers to implement the dancers' renditions of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim songs. Here, Robbins's gift for theatrical narrative comes to the fore. Perhaps no other ballet in the current NYCB lineup so boldly demonstrates the versatility of the dancers. Was that last evening's princess switching her skirt around? Was that the Saturday matinee's buoyant princeling hunkering down with his feet in sneakers and his fists at the ready? If these five ballets number among the company's jewels, so do the remarkable people who dance them and keep them alive for us.
New York City Ballet's All-Balanchine program runs Feb. 16, 17, 19 and 20. The All-Robbins evening will be performed Feb. 18, 20, 21, 23 and 24.
Deborah Jowitt has written for the Village Voice since 1967 and is the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.