Essential Robbins
“In G Major,” “Dances at a Gathering,” “I’m Old Fashioned”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 31, 2007

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2007 by Susan Reiter

“Dances at a Gathering" never seems to be out of the repertory for very long, nor should it be. Its hour of subtle, eloquent, witty and sublime dancing to a cascading succession of Chopin piano pieces remains one of the glories of NYCB’s repertory, and one of Jerome Robbins’ most personal and unaffectedly brilliant works. It is tricky to cast; not only does it requite ten soloist-caliber performers, but they must seem to truly know, understand and respect one another — to breathe the same air, to share the same experiences. Several generations of dancers have now moved through the ballet and despite the occasional glaring miscasting, most of the time they seem to get it right. All credit is due to the sensitive caretakers of the Robbins oeuvre who rehearse and coach “Dances” so astutely.

On Thursday, four cast members were making debuts, and four others were new in the ballet when it was performed the previous week. That first cast had been anchored by veterans Damian Woetzel and Nikolai Hübbe — as the men in, respectively, brown and mauve — and Yvonne Borree in pink. This week’s cast had Benjamin Millepied and Jared Angle in those roles, and while not new to them, they have not been performing the ballet for very long.

This mostly new and generally younger cast captured much of the light and shadow, the wit, and the sprightly musicality that make “Dances” such a distinctive and rich experience. Millepied is an eloquent and ideal interpreter of the most central male role. If Woetsel’s bold, dynamic attack is more in the vein of Edward Villella, who originated the role, Millepied is in the honorable tradition of Helgi Tomasson, who brought a touch of the poet to it. Not that Millepied stints at all in the swift, demanding solo that comes about two-thirds of the way through, in which he seems to be borne along on wind currents that carry him now in one direction, then suddenly in another. He brings a touch of the devilish charmer to the role as needed, and engage sin boyish competitiveness with eager abandon.

Jenifer Ringer, making her debut as the woman in pink, scored a real triumph. Her musical responses were beautifully subtle and natural, and she shaped the role with a blend of womanly allure and girlish yearning. In duets with both Millepied and Angle, in which the music goes through a complete change in tone and texture, she was wonderfully in the moment, taking us through the shifting emotions — from lighthearted to melancholy — with quicksilver subtlety. She understands the relaxed, spontaneous quality that this work demands, but one senses the underlying intelligence and dramatic alertness.

Megan Fairchild and Adam Hendrickson, both making debuts, removed any potential for cuteness in the robust, delightful “Giggle Dance,” and were impressive throughout. Sara Mearns, fully in control of her womanly allure, was vivid as the new woman in green, who remains something of an outsider until the full cast assembles for the first time at the end. In her first, restless solo she could simplify and sharpen the focus a bit, but in the second, her blend of distracted ditsiness and wistful self-awareness as the woman who keeps finding and losing men, was perfectly calibrated.

Much of “In G Major” feels like “’Interplay’ Goes to the Beach,” especially when the cheerful, bounding ensemble mixes it up in trios or jogs playfully along. It’s all good fun, but rather lightweight — lots of crisply energetic activity that leaves little impact once it’s over. But the principal couples — Maria Kowroski and Philip Neal on this occasion — who closely mirror the solo piano lines — bring both gravitas and sensuality to the proceedings. Kowrowski was ideal as the leggy jazz-age bathing beauty who struts and preens, only to reveal her deeper essence in the extended, haunting duet in which she and Neal moved from innocent give and take through ever-deepening connection, approaching rapturous bliss. Robbins has rarely tapped into a deeply emotional vein with such heartfelt directness, and as this man and woman glide and dip along with the music’s quietly building intensity, adolescence gives way to adulthood.

After these examples of what Robbins was up to in the 1960s and 1970s, the program concluded with his 1983 Fred Astaire tribute, “I’m Old Fashioned.”

Volume 5, No. 22
June 4, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter

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