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Flash Review, 5-23: Dreams of Robbins
At City Ballet, Jerry Plays with the Russians

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2008 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- On May 9 at the New York State Theater, the program performed by the New York City Ballet, part of its Jerome Robbins Celebration, was titled Russian Roots. Four works by the choreographer, set to Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, showed the breadth of Robbins's range, but all resonated with the syncopated musicality and jazz inflection that we associate with his most identifiable Broadway show dances.

After a shaky "Andantino" (1981) to the second movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto -- in which Joaquin De Luz partnered Megan Fairchild, who was having an off night -- things shifted into high gear with a confident Gonzalo Garcia starring in "Opus 19/The Dreamer" (1979) with the unfailingly musical Wendy Whelan as his muse.

The first section is beautifully architectural with the soloist surrounded by four men or four women at the corners. The geometry structures the classical vocabulary with its hints of jazz -- foot flexes and contractions. The end of this section, when the Dreamer moves upstage and reaches out longingly, presages the emotionality of the second movement, an extended romantic duet for the man and his elusive beloved with kinetic annotations by the corps. Whelan and Garcia combine crisp lines and playfulness, buoyed by Prokofiev's violin concerto No. 1 in D major, featuring soloist Erin Keefe.

Set to a selection of Tchaikovsky music for solo piano, played robustly by Susan Walters at a grand piano in the first box adjacent to the stage right proscenium, "Piano Pieces" (1981) starts off with four faux-Russian folk dances by the corps in red-trimmed white costumes. The movement is peppered with character dance clichés, but its lively pace and crafty spatial arrangements are enchanting. The heart of the piece comprises pas de deux alternating with solo variations for corps member Antonio Carmena, whose verve and precision merit a promotion to soloist. "Reverie" (Sara Mearns and Jared Angle), "November -- Troika" (Abi Stafford and Amar Ramasar), and "October -- Chant d'Automme" (Kaitlyn Gilliland and Stephen Hanna) are prolonged love duets that are like extended foreplay without payoff. It's almost as if Robbins had been trying to resolve his own sexuality by exploring heterosexual romance as an observer but not necessarily a practitioner. The kinetic distinctions between the duets do not give us enough new emotional information to justify their extended lengths.

But for my money, Robbins hits his stride in his 1965 "Les Noces (A Dance-Cantata)," originally created for American Ballet Theatre, to the pulsing Stravinsky score. The movement is hard-core modern inflected with folk dance, the scenario about the wedding preparations for a rustic Russian couple is clear and simple, and Robbins's delight is palpable in fitting his steps to the composer's sensuously ragged rhythms.

The onstage chorus, conducted by Faycal Karoui, sits on risers behind the dancing area, which is ringed by rude benches. Patricia Zipprodt's costumes -- tunics and laced boots on the men and peasant skirts and bodices on the women -- and wood walls by set designer Oliver Smith, painted with huge, primitive, Chagall-like saints, set the rustic mood and ethnic tone.

The participants enter ritualistically and proceed to prepare the Bride and Groom in female- and male-centric dances of delicate scurrying by the former and lusty bounding by the latter. The Lamentation of the Mothers (Rachel Rutherford and Rebecca Krohn), an emotionally vivid duet, leads to the Wedding Feast, which ends with everyone sitting soberly on the benches, bowing forward or tilting to the side.

Whoever set the dance (the stager was not credited in the program) deserves special mention, because the entire cast danced it with conviction and a solid grasp of its jagged lines and earthy weightiness. The Bride (Tiler Peck) and Groom (Adam Hendrickson) are designed to be rather passive ciphers, affected by the community. Matchmakers Georgina Pazcoguin and Benjamin Millepied lead the corps of Friends and Guests with electric energy. Millepied's charisma and rhythmic clarity seem to galvanize the entire group.

I'm happy to report that the level of everyone's dancing, on this evening at least, was higher than I've seen in a while. True, it's been some time since I last saw the company, and this is reportedly a prevalent trend. Whatever the reason for the upswing, it's very good news.

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