Jerome Robbins at City Ballet

The New York City Ballet's quite extraordinay Jerome Robbins Celebration, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, has given great pleasure and evoked mostly admiring critical commentary. As for the pleasure, I and most others who love dance have written about him at length. His fascinating blend of American simplicity and generosity and entertainment with the loving strictures of classical ballet created something unique, and most of what he created still looks fresh today. The richness of the repertory and the level of performance, along with the lovely visual exhibitions of his life and work in the New York State Theater lobby and the New York Public Library, have all contributed to the sense of occasion.

The City Ballet's current crop of dancers have, by and large, done him proud, even if some of the big guns have been largely missing in action, injured. But that makes room for a younger generation, which in turn assures a continuance of the Robbins tradition as cultivated at the School of American Ballet and City Ballet itself. More and more companies worldwide dance this repertory, in ever greater depth past the big hits, aided by a devoted cadre of coaches fanning out, by and large, from City Ballet.

I'd like to single out four ballets. "Ives, Songs" has been the highlight of the programs I've seen. Robbins's wonderful ability to blend the purity of ballet abstraction with gestures that hint at narrative drama is never more evident here. "Opus 19/The Dreamer" found Wendy Whelan and Gonzalo Garcia at their romantic best. "Dances at a Gathering," even with a weaker set of dancers than in the recent or more distant past, is such a grand, glowing masterpiece that it still shone.

For me, the most intriguing revival was of "Watermill." It didn't really work, its hypnotic revery undercut by an overlaod of busy incident. For many critics of the piece, then and now, it failed because it wasn't sufficiently balletic. For me, it failed becaus it wasn't sufficiently Robert Wilsonian.

"Watemill" was made in 1972, after Robbins had worked closely with Wilson, not least out in the Hamptons, at Water Mill. (Wilson's Watermill Center flourishes there now.) This was the apex of Wilson's great early period, what with "Deafman Glance," "The King of Spain" and "The Life and times of Sigmund Freud" (Robbins played Freud in at least one performance), all of which fed into the epochal "Life and Times of Joseph Stalin." Robbins sought to emulate the dreamy rapture of those works, but he fell nervously short. Not much happens in "Watermill," but enough happens to disrupt the flow.

In The New Yorker, Joan Acocella argued that in general, Robbins "always seemed torn between ballet's abstraction and what was his own fundamental realism -- his attachment to stories, feelings, current events." I would argue that the real tension lies not so much in his ballets in general as in "Watermll" in particular, and that the tension is between an instinct for lively action against the courage to remain minimalistically pure.

Most of our leading ballet critics today, at least in the United States and Britain, value Balanchine over Robbins, and perhaps rightly so. Even in their ostensible admiration there is something more or less overtly condescending in their attitude toward the upstart Robbins, too brash, too ambitious, too American. One wonders how the Robbins Celebartion will alter those feelings. Not much, I suspect. 

June 10, 2008 5:49 PM |


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