Jerome Robbins's Musical Charade

Classic Arts Features   Jerome Robbins's Musical Charade
A look at the master choreographer's comic ballet, The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody), opening at Houston Ballet this month.

When you think of ballet, the word "funny" doesn't usually come to mind. Although quite a few ballets have comic passages, a work that provokes almost constant laughter, like Jerome Robbins's The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody) is a rarity.

It also attests to Robbins's versatility and his ability to switch gears between very diverse projects. He choreographed the light-hearted little gem in 1956 for the New York City Ballet (a company he'd been affiliated with since 1950), when he was deep in preparations with three colleagues for a very different, much darker work — one that ended with the tragic death of its hero. The epochal musical West Side Story — with music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreographed and directed by Robbins — opened in 1957.

Robbins moved back and forth between Broadway and the concert stage from the mid-1930s, when he first began to dance professionally, until 1969, when he re-allied himself with the New York City Ballet. At the time of his death in 1998, he had created over sixty ballets and choreographed and/or directed fifteen musicals. His experiences in musical theater taught him how to pare away excess to make a point and how to manipulate timing so a joke could register. Working alongside New York City Ballet's George Balanchine taught him the pleasures of letting music alone inspire dancing. The skills he acquired in both fields surface in The Concert.

Several times over the course of his long career, Robbins satirized a subject that he knew well: dancing itself. In The Concert, the "daisy chains" that George Balanchine often put into his ballets (a line of dancers holding hands winds into knots that magically untie) make an appearance, as does the corps de ballet of nymphs with delicately wafting arms who populate Mikhail Fokine's Les Sylphides. But Robbins's knots turn into an impossible snarl, and his under-rehearsed sylphs don't always agree on basic decisions. Like whether to waft left or right.

The main theme of the dance, however — the one that supports these witty takeoffs — centers on a well-known phenomenon: Many people daydream while listening to music, letting it engender fantasies that connect in curious ways to their own lives.

The idea had been whirling around in Robbins's head for a while. A couple of years before he made The Concert, he had jotted down notes for a ballet tentatively titled Nineteen Days to Go. A woman with hours of Christmas shopping still to do somehow finds herself listening to an hour of music appreciation. Robbins envisioned her worries over her gift list and the looming holiday mingling with dreams spawned by popular classics like the William Tell Overture and Schubert's Marche Militaire.

When he began sketching out The Concert, however, he settled on an all-Chopin program, played by an onstage pianist. He'd encountered this music as a little boy, when he attended lessons in interpretive dancing with his sister, Sonia. And, like most dancers, he'd heard many Chopin works hammered out by pianists accompanying ballet classes. In 1969, he was to set one of his deepest and most beautiful works, Dances at a Gathering, to Chopin waltzes, mazurkas, and etudes. It's not surprising that the hilarious Concert also contains moments of sweetness and surprising poignancy.

The Concert that we see today isn't exactly like the one that New Yorkers saw in 1956. Robbins excised some sections and added others to polish his little gem. He also deleted a lyrical dance he'd made for Tanaquil LeClercq, Balanchine's wife and Robbins's adored muse, who played the loopy, music-intoxicated romantic. LeClercq was stricken with polio eight months after The Concert premiered and never danced again; Robbins couldn't bear watching anyone else perform her solo.

Two painted front curtains by Saul Steinberg were added when the ballet was presented in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958, at the first Festival of Two Worlds. The ballet's characters are reminiscent of those in cartoons that Steinberg contributed to The New Yorker. Dressed alike in light blue leotards and tights, but distinguished by various hats, socks, vests, ties, and (in one case) by a cigar, people straggle into what might be a lunchtime piano recital and set up folding chairs. In brief, telling strokes, Robbins reveals something about each of them: the shy boy, the tough girl, the two gossipy ladies who rummage in their handbags at inappropriate moments, the serious music lover, the henpecked husband and his wife, and so on. Just getting the seating arrangements straightened out becomes a subtle and delicious small comedy.

Over the years, some of these familiar Chopin pieces have acquired nicknames, and, as the onstage listeners enter their own fantasies, Robbins takes witty advantage of the possibilities presented by the "Raindrop Prelude" and the "Butterfly Etude."

Simply writing about the ballet brings a smile to my face and a desire to see it again as soon as possible.

Deborah Jowitt is the dance critic of The Village Voice and the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.

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