Jerome Robbins has been associated with the New York City Ballet for 50 years – as dancer, dance-maker (to this day, second only to Balanchine), discoverer and developer of young talent, associate artistic director, and, eventually, éminence grise. Quite rightly, the company (in residence at the New York State Theater through June 28) devoted this season’s gala performance to his work. The centerpiece of the evening’s program was the company premiere of Les Noces, created by Robbins for American Ballet Theatre in 1965.
The first staging of the eponymous Stravinsky cantata, which borrows from Russian folk material to evoke a traditional peasant wedding, was created by Bronislava Nijinska, under the auspices of Serge Diaghilev, in 1923. Nijinska’s ballet remains incontrovertibly the more original and forceful – in design, visceral power, and emotional effect. Ironically, Robbins himself considers that version superior to his. However, the Nijinska had long disappeared from the dance world’s active repertory when Robbins decided to have a go at the score. After England’s Royal Ballet retrieved Nijinska’s Noces in 1966, Robbins declared that if he had seen her work before attempting his, he would never have tackled the material.
Apparently, he’s had second thoughts – prompted, perhaps, by the impulse to see the best of his dances alive and well now that he, at 79, is visibly feeling the effect of advancing years. Since mounting a ballet on the rising generation of dancers is one of the best ways of ensuring its future vitality, one should be grateful for NYCB’s undertaking. It’s a pity, though, that we can’t have Robbins’s Noces in its full glory, with the music – rendered by four grand pianos, a small orchestra of other percussion instruments, and a singing chorus and soloists – coming at us from the stage, so that our ears and eyes are struck by a double measure of vitality. In the ABT production, the complex frenzy of sound emanating from the same space as the dancing was an equal, and seemingly indispensable, partner in the theatrical enterprise. The official word about the taped score that accompanies the present production is that Robbins was recently much taken by the rendition of Moscow’s Pokrovsky Ensemble, working in a folk-music style, and elected to use a recording of it. Since the result is pallid and Robbins rarely miscalculates when it comes to putting on a show, one suspects he’s too much of a gentleman to point out that budgetary concerns prohibited live music.
The choreography, frankly conceived in a faux-naïf mode, is striking and consistent in style throughout. It’s dominated by the interplay of chorus (friends of the very innocent, very young bride and groom) and soloists (the tremulous principals, their parents, the matchmaking couple). All of the individual characters are seen as pawns in the rituals of a tight-knit community from which they draw their identity and strength. Robbins deftly varies the emotional terrain by emphasizing the blithe earthiness of the matchmakers, the anguish of the two mothers, who sense that their children are being torn from them, and, especially, the fearful uncertainty of the inexperienced pair. The groom’s virile prowess is lustily encouraged by the male contingent; the virgin bride is hypnotized by female rituals, both sympathetic and brutal (such as the shearing of her long hair), into a kind of accepting submission. Robbins’s treatment of the moment of sexual consummation is brilliant, suggesting – just suggesting, mind you – that what started out as a terrifying physical event for the young pair is the beginning of a personal bonding we might even call love.
As usual, Robbins was unerring in his casting. The selection of Alexandra Ansanelli – young, small, and fragilely built, but with clear star power – to play the bride is just one example. The ensemble as a whole, working against the grain of NYCB style, is not sufficiently grounded and sinewy. Even today’s sleek, streamlined ABT could do better in this department. Now that Les Noces has been remounted, might it not be borrowed back?