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Robbins’s Love Demon Returns in City Ballet Revival of `Dybbuk’

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on February 5, 2007.

Feb. 5 (Bloomberg) — Seven devout young men from a long-ago shtetl dance, arms linked, creating an impenetrable wall with their black-clad bodies. Their movement is both angular and sinuous, mirroring Leonard Bernstein’s score, which couples modern dissonance with undulating ethnic references. Suddenly the figures break free, making cryptic, emphatic gestures with their hands, each body now a separate locus of mystery and danger.

This is the opening passage of Jerome Robbins’s “Dybbuk,” revived in its original form by the New York City Ballet. Set in an Orthodox Jewish community in Eastern Europe, this account of possession, exorcism and love beyond the grave — based on S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk,” a staple of Yiddish theater — premiered in 1974.

Back then the ballet received a lukewarm reception, and Robbins himself was dissatisfied with it. Several revisions that made the piece more abstract were no better. The return to the original, reconstructed by Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Elyse Borne, who danced in the first production, proves that this ballet needs as much story as it can get. Even so, the choreography is no more than a series of vignettes — as vivid and incomplete as stained-glass church windows that illustrate the high points of dramatic Biblical tales.

Body Snatcher

In Ansky’s 1914 drama, Chanon, an impoverished religious scholar, and Leah have been promised to each other by their fathers before they were born. But when Leah is ready to marry, her father chooses a richer husband for her. To reclaim his promised bride, Chanon explores the treacherous mystical world of the cabala and dies as a result. His spirit — the dybbuk — invades Leah’s body; the community exorcises it, at the price of Leah’s life. Destined for each other, the lovers are united after death.

Without connection to these characters and events, the ballet would be indecipherable. There’s plenty to praise in Robbins’s stark, strange male solos and the male septet that opens the piece, asserting the implacable power of the community’s obsessions, along with their opposite, a dulcet folksy number for Leah and her girlfriends.

Most striking is the long duet in which Chanon, now a dybbuk, possesses his beloved’s body, first violently, countering her resistance, then with her utter compliance. Robbins makes it clear that this is, in a sense, their wedding night. The fact that much of the choreography has a cabala-on- Broadway sheen just reconfirms where Robbins’s immense talent was most at home.

Turbulent Emotions

The entire cast performed with devotion, Benjamin Millepied working extra-hard to blend technical strength with the turbulent emotions besetting Chanon. Jenifer Ringer, all reticent lyricism, made an exquisitely pure, delicate Leah. “Dybbuk” is in no way a major ballet, but it has given her one of the best roles she’s ever had.

The New York City Ballet is at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, through Feb. 25. Information: +1-212-721-6500 or http://www.nycballet.com.

© 2007 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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