NEW YORK — At last week’s “All Robbins” program at the New York City Ballet, the greatest applause was given to ballerinas who didn’t dance a step.
Nearing the end of an evening that featured three ballets by the choreographer (2 & 3 Part Inventions, In Memory Of…, and West Side Story Suite), Chita Rivera took the stage to present the Jerome Robbins Award to 30 ballerinas with whom Robbins worked. Rivera, who originated the role of Anita in the Broadway musical West Side Story, first paid posthumous respects to four dancers who had a special relationship with Robbins (Melissa Hayden, Nora Kaye, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Janet Reed), then called the remaining 26 to the stage. These included dancers still performing with the company (Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowrowski, and Jenifer Ringer) and former principal dancers from every period of NYCB’s history. All of them, from Violette Verdy and Allegra Kent, to Patricia McBride and Suzanne Farrell, came to honor the choreographer and to be honored themselves for their invaluable contributions to his work.
The reason behind honoring the ballerinas who helped create Robbins’ work was clear by the end of the evening – his ballets call for intelligence, sensitivity, and humor from the dancers who perform them. 2 & 3 Part Inventions, a work choreographed for students of the School of American Ballet in 1994, does not have the dramatic or psychological intensity of many of his other ballets. It playfully trips along the surface of Bach’s piano music: the more serious adagio sections imprint themselves on the mind but lightly, as do the freely-changing formations and cascading canons of movement. Yet with the right dancers, Inventions can become a softly moving piece.
The eight young dancers currently performing this ballet (all are soloists or members of the corps de ballets) bring charm and wit to its mini-dramas. They do not affect emotions grander than the ballet merits: those they express are hushed, if strongly felt. Lauren Lovette, in particular, is fascinating to watch in this piece: she almost passively lets the music and choreography move through her body, and yet imbues all of her movements with quiet conviction. With her light touch, she makes even the most artificially passionate steps – as when she collapses at the waist and her fingers thread down her face as if weeping – seem natural. Ashley Laracey also creates a restrained drama in her solo variation, thoughtful but not quite dreamy as she sweeps still air into slight breezes with her arms. As for the more frolicsome parts of Inventions, Daniel Applebaum and Anthony Huxley are memorably mischievous in their vaguely competitive dance for two.
Robbins’ In Memory Of… is far more complex, a string of meditations on death and remembrance. It is choreographed to the music of Alban Berg, who wrote the piece upon the death of a friend’s daughter. In the first movement, Wendy Whelan, in pink, first dances with Jared Angle, but their tender pas de deux soon is subsumed by the dancing of similarly-dressed men and women. What is perhaps most interesting about this part of the ballet is how much watching goes on onstage: at first, Whelan and Angle wander about the stage as if trying to make sense of what is going on around them (Are they lost in the crowd? In their own minds?); later, they join the fray while other couples lounge at the corners of the stage like the blurry edges of a memory.
The second movement of the ballet is the moment of death: Charles Askegard replaces Angle and controls the movements of an increasingly weary Whelan until she collapses. Tall and relentless, he is a chillingly distant representation of death. As the two travel a long diagonal across the stage, he bats disinterestedly at Whelan’s arms, tilting her body back and forth until she is pushed into a punishing series of chaîne turns. When she dies, her hand is grasped in his own, yet he looks not at her but at a distant corner of the stage. The third movement, which seems to depict some sort of heaven, has a surprisingly similar tone – impersonal, disconnected. The dancers, in white, are not exactly wispy ghosts or ungrounded souls: in fact, they feel almost abnormally solid for ballet dancers, doing grand pliés to their knees, slow développés, steady promenades. Yet there is a distinct lack of physical contact between them – touching is reduced to the light brushes of fingertips. It is to this that Whelan ascends, and if the last image of her, lifted upwards by Angle and Askegard, is something transcendent, the loss of physical life is still keenly felt.
Robbins, of course, is also known for his choreography for the Broadway stage – and his West Side Story Suite, an arrangement of dances from the musical, is always an entertaining end to an evening of ballet. On Friday, Robert Fairchild was making his debut as Riff, a role for which he is well-suited, and Jenifer Ringer was a commanding Anita, but the pieces for the entire cast are easily the most fun. Robbins’ choreography is upbeat and racing, from the street fights and parkour-style leaps over handrails to exuberant partner-dancing at the gym, and the dancers of NYCB seem to shed their pointe shoes with glee. Robbins’ ballets are as varied as the dancers who perform them, and as new generations tackle his repertoire, they are sure to reveal still more shades of his work.