Return of the Dybbuk

“Balanchine and Robbins: Masters at Work”
“Serenade,” “Dybbuk,” “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
February 2, 2007

by Susan Reiter
copyright 2007, Susan Reiter

So much drama and tension went into the making of “Dybbuk,” the 1974 collaboration between Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein that they had initially envisioned soon after they first joined forces for “Fancy Free” 30 years earlier. The recent books on Robbins, in documenting the ballet’s genesis and rehearsal period, emphasize the clash between Bernstein’s more dramatic approach and Robbins’ most abstract one. Bernstein was in favor of having a brief synopsis of the play appear in the program, and wrote one; Robbins did not want it. He may have given the dancers the S. Ansky play to read, but he pointedly did not assign character names to the central couple.

Revived in its original form by NYCB for the first time since the 1970s (Robbins tinkered with it and presented it in alternate forms over the years), “Dybbuk” made a powerful and fascinating return on Friday evening. Robbins’ masterful theatricality here takes on a stark form, established by the severe line of men who open the ballet. Wearing black skullcaps and filmy black gowns (meant to evoke the long black coats worn by Hasidic men), they advance rigidly and with intense focus, with legs slicing stealthily along diagonal paths. Bernstein’s music has a haunting, eerie suggestiveness, as it starts out restrained before exploding into wild, wailing, almost jazzy frenzy. The men, who had remained so close they seemed attached to one another, launch into powerful jumps and sink into deep lunges. One can’t help but think of the formality and suppressed ecstasy of the famous “bottle dance” from “Fiddler on the Roof” — another project in which Robbins got to explore his connections (or lack thereof) to his Jewish roots.

Figures in flowing white take over for the next section, in which two fathers, clasping ai circling on e another in earthy solidarity, pledge to have their children marry. Joined by their wives, they dance with ceremonial restraint, and in quick order the children, about whom they made their promise, make an appearance — already as adults. Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millepied — dancers whom Robbins cast in his works often and who clearly have an innate understanding of his subtleties — did not have a lot to do other than establish their presence in this scene.

Their connection — ordained by fate, and destined to have tragic consequences — comes alive in “The Dream.” Millepied is reclining on one side of the stage, and Ringer appears on the other. Their coming together in this dream is marked by frequently robotic, stiff movements; a side to side tilt on pointe is one of her repeated motifs. The uneasiness is reinforced by the pauses and hesitations in Bernstein’s music.

The choreography, after these more muted and ritualistic sections, achieves a ferocity that seizes our attention when Millepied and the other men dance the “Invocation of the Kabbalah.” In the play, the young man, Chanon, trespasses in this forbidden mystical territory in a desperate attempt marry Leah, whose father has opted for a wealthier suitor, thus breaking his pledge. In a series of odd, jagged, twisting solos, performed while the group sits in that familiar one-knee-up position on the floor, the men evoke the deep mysteries of the Kabbalah and seemingly “teach” Millepied, who shapes his body into the final position of each of their solos. Bernstein’s score crackles with anxious, unsettling percussion sounds. Millepied himself does not layer any overtly dramatic effects onto his dancing, but imbues it with a searing urgency and purity. His compact physique and blend juicy attack with crisp precision certainly recall Helgi Tomasson, who originated the role.

Ringer does not quite have the gossamer transparency that Patricia McBride (who originated her role) could summon, but she brings a riveting intensity to her role, and in the “Possession” duet, she becomes quite unnervingly and convincingly possessed, as Millepied clasps her so that their bodies seem to fuse as one. Their duet is wild, full of daring surprises — more desperate than romantic — even as it shifts into a gentler adagio mode.

There is much that is fascinating — and fascinatingly odd — in “Dybbuk.” The three angelic “messengers” who waft through as ominous chorus-like figures come across as too precious, their purpose surprisingly indecisive. Clearly, Robbins was deeply drawn to this haunting of dark forces and mystical transcendence, but one can sense he was engaged in a struggle with the material. The opportunity to have this substantial Robbins work back on stage is most welcome — and enlightening.

Interestingly, though this revival has not been mentioned as one of the ways the company is marking Lincoln Kirstein’s centennial, he did urge Robbins to revive “Dybbuk” in its full, but Robbins declined. So two decades later, he has gotten his wish.

The evening opened with a reinvigorated performance of Balanchine’s glorious “Serenade,” in which Kyra Nichols added another memorable performance to those she has been giving during this penultimate season of her career. Every movement embodied the music’s luminous purity and captures its essence; her dancing had a fluid expansiveness and she eloquently embodied the quiet implications of tragedy that Balanchine has embedded in the choreography. Ashley Bouder (in a New York debut as the figure who leads the Russian Dance) was also a revelation, tempering her usual boldness with a wonderful openness and expressiveness in her upper body. She registered the music’s fluency and impulses with the beautiful suspension she brought to her phrasing. Maria Kowroski, as the “Dark Angel” who lends an air of fateful inevitability to the final “Elegy” movement, was magisterial. Philip Neal was beautifully in sync with Nichols as the swept through the Waltz, and Stephen Hanna brought strong focus and quiet strength to the role of the man propelled by fate — and beset by leaping women. Despite a few mishaps — a fall by a corps dancer early in the opening movement, and Nichols’ hair coming loose a few seconds before it should have — this was a “Serenade” that truly got to the heart of this timeless ballet. This performance was dedicated to Ruthanna Boris, who died last month; she was in its original 1934 cast, and went on to dance with several Balanchine-Kirstein companies, including NYCB.

The program closed with a Balanchine work set to his other favorite composer, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.”

Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millepied in "Dybbuk." Photo (and photo on front page) by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 5, No. 6
January 29, 2007

copyright ©2007 Susan Reiter

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