Over the course of his career, Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) created a remarkably diverse body of work, from the Broadway hits West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof, to such New York City Ballet classics as Dances at a Gathering, The Concert, The Cage, and Afternoon of a Faun. Some of his most poignant works came in the 1980s, after several people close to him had died, and he was looking back on his life and taking stock. One of these ballets, In Memory of..., returns to the NYCB rep this season after an absence of five years.
In an excerpt from Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, Deborah Jowitt illuminates the inspiration for and creation of this astonishing, powerful ballet.
If age had no impact on the scope of Robbins's activities or his financial status or his energy, it did influence his creative life. In 1989, he wrote in one of the notebook-diaries he sometimes started (unable to completely kick the journal habit), "Anyone should be able to see that 'In Memory Of..., 'Ives,' and 'JR Bway' [Jerome Robbins' Broadway] are farewell pieces, personal closing up shop pieces." Of the five ballets he made between 1985 and 1988, three‹In Memory of…, Quiet City, and Ives, Songs‹commemorated the past and contemplated death….
In an interview with Rosamund Bernier that punctuated Dance in America's live broadcast of In Memory of…, Robbins spoke of its music, Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, as a cryptogram. As he had learned from composer George Perle's two volumes on Berg's operas, Berg had written the piece in 1935, the year of his death, and dedicated it to Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, who had just died of infantile paralysis at the age of eighteen. The music interweaves a portrait of the girl and the Vienna society in which she moved with memories of women Berg had loved, his intimations of death, and his awareness of the rise of fascism.... Robbins's intimations of his own mortality and his grief over the loss of George Balanchine, Edith Weissman, and others merged with Berg's musical sorrow. While he denied the ballet was an elegy for Balanchine, by molding it around Suzanne Farrell, one of the most exquisite of Balanchine's ballerinas, he ended up creating a memorial to the choreographer that is infinitely more poignant than an overt homage.
He began to work out his ideas with Victor Castelli and Cathy Ryan, a talented corps dancer. Farrell was having serious problems with her hip, and he didn't want to call her in until he had something set.... He was choreographing two pas de deux‹an innocent and loving one and a darker one in which the man represents Death. ... The music, with its dissonant twelve-tone texture and quiveringly sweet violin, created a complex interior landscape. At some point, he got stuck, but after deciding to abandon the ballet, he returned from a week in California to give it another try….
The first session with Farrell was, he noted in a log written in Turkey the summer after the premiere, "the most extraordinary rehearsal I've ever had ... It was as near to automatic writing as I've experienced. Suzanne was incredible.... We were all possessed; high; amazed, spent, inspired. At that point the ballet fused; Suzanne and I fused; Suzanne and the ballet fused." It took only two weeks to finish the work.... After the first full run-through, the cast applauded‹something that had never happened to Robbins.
[Joseph Duell partnered] Farrell in the first pas de deux. In that trusting duet, the woman is often off the ground, led and turned by her partner, gently kept from the dark corners of the stage that seem to beckon her. Certain moments prefigure the second duet: her young lover rocks her gently, as the Death figure does later; falling backward into his arms, she goes fleetingly limp. In delineating his heroine's milieu, Robbins goes more deeply into the image of community than simply having people watch one another. Farrell all but disappears into a women's dance. When couples skein a country waltz over the floor, the men lift their partners in leaps, one after another; it's as if they're inciting their companions to try this joyful step.
The first exit of the group puzzled many viewers. They stalk stiffly out on tiptoe.... One note Robbins wrote to himself sheds some light on this scene: he wondered if the corps could be "her country folk slowly giving in to Nazism. But must be used, if used, subtly, delicately, also hidden & ambiguous."
Fortunately, Dance in America taped a performance of the ballet in December 1986 (a year and a half after its premiere on June 13, 1985). Farrell's extraordinary performance with her exemplary partner in the second duet is hair-raising even on tape. With [Adam] Lüders as his surrogate, Robbins forces her to extend her range, to undertake movements you can believe have never been tried before, movements that are both beautiful and strange, like words in an unfamiliar language. Twice her partner leaves her exhausted on the floor, then reclaims her. Although he entraps her and she struggles, he is also the gentle puppet master and the tender lover. In the end, after she has taken her place in an angelic society very like the one she has left, where the moves are familiar to her, both men, like her now garbed in white, return to carry her further. Robbins wanted us to see that "she is now accepting Life and Death, transported to a place to be able to WALK ON AIR, which is what she is doing."
From JEROME ROBBINS by Deborah Jowitt. Copyright © 2004 by Deborah Jowitt. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.