Continuing its fiftieth-anniversary rites, the New York City Ballet concocted a “Jerome Robbins Celebration” – a week of programs by the man who was indisputably the second-best choreographer ever to work with the company. With his fluency in both the classical and the jazz idioms, his theatrical know-how, his sense of American culture at the ordinary-folks level, and his instinct for young dancers’ gifts, Robbins would easily have been king of the hill anywhere else. He started out at American Ballet Theatre, where his very first venture, the 1944 Fancy Free, was a smash hit. As everyone knows, Robbins left an indelible mark on Broadway (think The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story). He ran his own company briefly, too. But it was at the NYCB, working by choice alongside George Balanchine, whom he recognized as his superior (and therefore a colleague worthy of him), that Robbins was able to explore his more rarefied visions.
The “Celebration” represented these subtle, complex dreams with the austere Goldberg Variations, an intricate machine operating to the Bach score that’s guaranteed to bore the unanalytic listener, and Robbins’s masterpiece, the lovely Dances at a Gathering, set to far more accessible Chopin pieces. Even in these works, one sees the shrewd aspects of Robbins. Goldberg uses gimmicks (Robbins is a great one for gimmicks) to make a point about the connection of classical ballet to the social dances of Bach’s time. (A mediocre Robbins piece, The Four Seasons, to opera-ballet music by Verdi, is comprehensible only as a similar attempt to co-opt theater history – in this case revealing the charming absurdity of antiquated theatrical conventions to the contemporary eye as well as their enduring beauties.)
Dances at a Gathering displays Robbins’s penchant for treating a group of characters (however fluidly presented; this is a semi-abstract work) as a community united by tenderness, yet fiercely insular. Apparent here as well is Robbins’s familiar conception of the figures he creates as dancers (that sacred breed) first, people second. Also visible are the choreographer’s slightly too obvious cleverness about structure in space and time and, most disappointing, his rendering of emotion at a level that is touchingly young and romantic but not sufficiently sophisticated to match Robbins’s evident intellect and artistic cultivation. Much as you – and I – may bask in the pleasures of Dances at a Gathering, if we compare it with Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer, we can see that when it comes to feeling, one is the expression of a perpetual young man’s fancy, the other the product of a soul fully matured.
The “Celebration” occasioned some splendid dancing, especially at the up-and-coming level Robbins doted on. Particularly notable were Pascale van Kipnis, for her naturalness and élan; Riolama Lorenzo, for her unusual blend of glamour and technical prowess; and a handful of young men – among them Christopher Boehmer – who seem well on their way to soloist ranking. The best single performance – danseur noble purity meshed with an actor’s texture and depth – came from the seasoned principal dancer Peter Boal in Opus 19/The Dreamer, a work that is hardly top-drawer Robbins. The week offered other lesser ballets and some of the choreographer’s most striking ones, primary among these Les Noces. Inevitably, the chance to see wall-to-wall Robbins revealed deficiencies one might otherwise overlook. I, for one, realized with dismay that the ballets I had to miss because of the typical New Yorker’s overcrowded schedule – Afternoon of a Faun, for instance, and Antique Epigraphs – were as clear in my mind from past performances as the works I saw during the “Celebration.” This, to me, is the chief problem with Robbins’s achievement: It exists on only one level. Robbins’s ballets may be indelible, but there’s not much more to them than meets the eye.