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Flash Review, 1-20: 'Gathering' moss; 'Export' mess
Dazzling Ringer, shining Shahn save the day at City Ballet

Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle in New York City Ballet's production of Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering." Photo copyright Paul Kolnik.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering" is one of those works you either love or you hate. I usually love it, but last night at New York City Ballet, in its first outing of the company's Winter season, I could see why people hate it. Individual performances within the 50-minute or so dance merited singling out -- Sara Mearns could be the second coming of Monique Meunier and, more important, Jenifer Ringer may just be Robbins's greatest active exponent -- but the spell this quiet rhapsody usually casts on me was absent. I even toyed with slugging this review "'Dances' deadly," as in boring. What its opponents damn the work for -- nothing ever happens -- is usually what I love it for, because the 'nothing' here is like that nothing of a leaf you press into your scrapbook and that years later recalls an ordinary day that, in memory, becomes precious. But for "Dances at a Gathering" to convey this, the dancers gathering have to have an underlying sense of how extraordinary their ordinary gathering is. Absent this awaremess, the work becomes just an assemblage of dances, gathered at random.

Ringer, as the central girl in pink, really tried, and, it's fair to say, did capture the mixture of whimsy and wonder, with even a dab of pathos and more than a dash of meloncholy, that the dance requires, on the way showing her lyrical ballerina chops. But she couldn't do it alone, and she certainly couldn't do it without a counterpart who also understood that something is happening here, even if what it is isn't exactly clear. (This dance *was* made in 1969.) Benjamin Millepied,as the central boy in brown, was impeccable, but he doesn't have the depth of instinctive understanding for Robbins, let alone jauntiness, that Damien Woetzel displayed for so many years in the same role. This left us with islands of diversion in an idle (idling?) ocean -- notably Millepied's duet with Ringer and her trio with Mearns and Abi Stafford and... that's about it. Suitably light when she first played the girl in green many years ago, this act from Maria Kowroski now seems worn and cliche-ridden, and not helped by the dancer's brittleness. It's a sobriquet role, and Kowroski should have moved on from it by now.


New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins's "NY Export: Opus Jazz," with scenery by Ben Shahn. Photo copyright Paul Kolnik.

I was really looking forward to seeing "N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz," a recent addition to the City Ballet rep. whose 1958 creation (for "Ballets U.S.A.") was contemporaneous with that of the Robbins choreographed and directed "West Side Story" (1957). Except that the latter had Leonard Bernstein and the former had Robert Prince, also known for creating the music for Arthur Kopit's play "Oh Dad, poor Dad, Mama's hung you in the closet and I'm feeling so sad" and, well, Prince should have hung this score in there with Dad. You know those '50s movies that tried to be cool by telling stories or featuring scenes of kids having 'wild' parties to 'wild' music, but that amounted to actors throwing their hips around and shrugging their shoulders to anonymous scraps of be-bop re-imagined by squares? Well, most of the music and a good dose of the dance was like this (let's add anemic finger-snapping), the latter not made any more credible by the skinny pale women dancing it. Georgina Pazcoguin did her level best, and I'd be denying being a red-blooded male if I didn't admit she had the curves to almost pull it off, but even Pazcoguin was sabotaged by the silly faux young people's '50s dance moves to the point where if she stuck her butt out one more time in those black tights I was going to propose revoking Robbins's 'West Side' Tony. In fact the only reason I could find for the vast disparity between those dances and these, aside from Bernstein, was that perhaps these dances were the remnants from the 'West Side' feast, not quite good enough for Broadway. They still aren't, with the possible exception of a black man / white woman duet that, I suppose, might have been controversial at the time and was truthfully rendered last night by Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall. The rest of this dance should be put back into the closet -- except for the Technicolor Ben Shahn scenery, which deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Where Robbins embarrassingly caricatures the dances of the time, Shahn not only got but comes from that New York '50s art milieu. Maybe images from his set designs here should be hung up in the lobby, to remind people that once upon a time, ballet companies commissioned real artists to make their...what were those called again... oh yes: Sets.


New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins's "NY Export: Opus Jazz," with scenery by Ben Shahn. Photo copyright Paul Kolnik.


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