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Flash Review, 1-30: Lilacs from Robbins
The Importance of Being "Old-Fashioned"

By Nicole Pope
Copyright 2002 Nicole Pope

NEW YORK -- Balanchine, known for his exquisite expressions of music, once said, "When you have a garden of pretty flowers, you don't demand of them, 'What do you mean? What is your significance?' You enjoy them.... So why not just enjoy ballet in the same way?"* True, there are moments of simple appreciation for surrounding beauty, but on many occasions I have taken in the sweet scent of the Vermont lilacs, for example, and was not only inspired by a sense of awe, but also by a pondering over nature, its existence, how it came to be, and what I was doing in the middle of it. Similarly, I can watch ballet and experience the pure expression of music, but there are times, many times, that I have found myself asking "Why?" When this question arises in ballet, it is usually the result of holes in the choreography, but Saturday's matinee performance of "I'm Old Fashioned" by the New York City Ballet at the State Theater was an engaging example of ballet's ability to combine beauty and context, and to dispel that question, "Why does this exist?"

With the clearest and simplest of intentions, Jerome Robbins created an homage in 1983 to the dancing of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in the 1942 movie "You Were Never Lovelier." In the beginning of the piece the original clip is projected alone and large, Fred Astaire in coat and tights and Hayworth in a flowing, black ball gown. The musical compositions of Morton Gould's variations on Jerome Kern's original score then accompanied a corps of eighteen dancers and three couples: On Saturday, Maria Kowroski and Sebastien Marcovici, Jenifer Ringer and Philip Neal, and Rachel Rutherford and Alexander Ritter, wiith Kowroski, Marcovici, and Ritter making role debuts.

With movement reflective of the duet between Astaire and Hayworth, but still of the ballet vocabulary, Robbins's choreography plays with many interpretations of the music, having dancers feet interpret the beat or off-beat, moving that beat and rhythm into the spine as the impetus spread to the limbs, and, in a solo of thigh slapping playfulness to a percussion instrument, by having a male dancer take on the light-footed qualities of Fred Astaire himself. The most striking duet of all Saturday, between Kowroski and Marcovici, was so because of their exquisite performance. Ringer's dancing is lush and stretches beyond her incredibly long limbs. In a duet between between her and Phlip Neal, the two make silly references to the moment when Astaire and Hayworth accidentally bump into each other as they attempt to go inside through a set of French doors. With gestures of "After you," and "No, after you," the dancers perform to a playful rendition of Kern's score.

Because this ballet was clearly in reverence to the 1942 duet, I was not put off by the final image in which the entire corps, dressed very similarly to Astaire and Hayworth, accompanies the projected duet in an encore of their dancing. Though the company outnumbered the movie legends on the screen, they did have a huge degree of competition for my attention, but rightly so. In their occasional pauses to give added mindfulness to the couple, it is pronounced that Robbins's choreography was never intended to outshine his inspiration.

* Quoted in Susan Leigh Foster's "Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance," Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1986.

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