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Flash ALARM, 1-16: Robbins is Burning
Is Jerome Robbins's Legacy Going Up in Flames at New York City Ballet?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Got your attention? Good. The subject line and headline may seem a little dramatic and not very diplomatic, but when there's a fire in one room of your dear friend's house, folks, you don't just politely whisper, "Excuse me, I smell something." You yell at the top of your lungs to rally the whole community, so you can put the fire out before the entire house goes up in flames. And based on what I saw Saturday night at the New York State Theater, where Jerome Robbins's elegiac Chopin ballet "In the Night" was transformed before my eyes into a wisp of a forgettable ballet by wooden dancing--in all six performers--we have a problem here. A big one.

But before we go deeper into the diagnosis, some background on the patient, as he should be when in full health:

At its best--no, at what should be and what before has been the norm--ballet should reveal to us not just an elevated physical standard which the rest of us can't reach, but, through the choreography and the music, as felt and interpreted and projected by the dancers, an elevated emotional experience all of us can aspire to.

No one--but no one--married movement to music to produce an offspring of utter extreme euphoric emotion from everyday experiences better than Jerome Robbins, with George Balanchine the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet. He did this most famously in "West Side Story" and "Fiddler in the Roof," but his greatest achievement was not so much revealing the extreme emotions conjured by these librettos, but using music and movement to conjure a rarified emotional air in the more incidental, mundane, and routine scenarios of every day life. In "Fancy Free," he evokes the release, camaraderie, bonhomie, and carefree attitude of three sailors on shore leave, as they dance on tables, court women, fight for dames--even a passage where they see who can throw their gum-wrappers the farthest soars. Not all of us experience the family and ethnic strife and love-across-tribal-divide of "West Side Story," but we can all relate to the story of young people out for a day in the park that, to me, "Dances at a Gathering" captures. This ballet is leisurely, unfolding in about 50 minutes. "Nothing" dramatic happens, but rather than impatiently praying for its end, you savor every moment, precisely because Robbins--aided by the Chopin music and, ideally, the dancers--is showing you that high, rarefied feelings are there for all of us, every day, in every moment, and not just waiting for extreme situations to be called forth.

"In the Night" is also such a ballet. The first time I saw it, this ballet for three couples, set to Chopin's music, captured the feeling of, well, typical couples pairing, sparring, romancing, dancing, flirting, fighting, rendezvousing, and loving in a park at night under a starry sky. When the couples encounter each other for the first time, near the end of the ballet, there is a sense of joyful discovery, as if to say, "Of course. These experiences are ones we all share."

What produces this feeling? Robbins has taken the music and found the emotions in it, using it as a sort of paint to describe the arc of what can happen when a man encounters a woman--situations that do not always take on the dramatic extremes of "West Side Story," but that still contain a charm and magic to marvel at. You walk away from this ballet saying, "I could experience this tonight," or even, "I experienced this last night."

To achieve this effect, the ballet does not require extremes of technical brilliance from the dancers--"just" heart and attention to the music. And this emotional connection should not be difficult for the dancers to make. The music and the choreography provide the key. Just--God, just put some Chopin on your turntable, close your eyes, with or without a loved one nearby, and I think you'll know what I mean.

More than anything, Robbins's ballets, and this one in particular, reveal humanity--the humanity inherent in the music, the dancers, and us.

These are ballets that make people return to the theater.

These are ballets that bring joy. And sorrow. If Balanchine is a trip to the abstractions of the Museum of Modern Art, Robbins is sitting before the fire and looking at the flames, feeling their warmth.

So, what happens when the dancers don't feel the ballet?

What happens when the dancers don't hear the Chopin?

What happens when the dancers seem only to be constructing steps, and steps that have only a posed relation to feeling and music?

What happens when a Robbins ballet is danced bereft of feeling?

What happens, folks, is you get a different ballet. A wisp of a ballet. An inconsequential ballet. An unrecognizable ballet. By Jerome Robbins! And a malnourished ballet because, folks, even perfect choreography like that of Robbins needs living dancers to not just move it, but be moved by it. Otherwise, my God--my God--how do you expect me to be moved?

When all six dancers utterly fail to be moved by Chopin's music and to move us with Robbins's choreography, as happened in "In the Night" Saturday, I have to conclude that the problem must be systemic. Especially when a dancer like Jennifer Ringer, who has at times seemed so fiery to me, only appears to be acting at 50 percent of her capacity in "In the Night"'s most fiery role. And when a dancer like Maria Kowroski, who once held such promise of lyricism wedded to technique, seems to be painting by the numbers, in her body and soul. It is with great pain that I criticize these dancers, who I have so admired (and in the case of Kowroski, worshipped) in other roles. I know--I KNOW--they can do better. Why aren't they?

It's a big question, and at this point I'm not going to hazard a guess. I am so utterly devastated to see this ballet I so love--this ballet that is one of the reasons I go to ballet, and that you should too--drained of all meaning, I might say something drastic that will only wound without being terribly constructive. I cannot see clearly enough to guess at an answer. I said in yesterday's Flash ("Ballet Noir") that it had been a long time since I cried at the ballet. Well, Saturday at the New York State Theater, after "In the Night" had evaporated before my eyes, I came damn close to crying again, though not for the right reasons. At this moment, I am not ready to point fingers. But if I were at the New York State Theater right now, and those dancers and their director and their ballet master or mistress were on the stage, I would fall down on my knees and beseech them, "Why? What have you done with this ballet I love so much? Where is it? I want it back!"

I do have a theory, however, as to why the caliber of this ballet's dancing dropped so dramatically from what I have seen before. When Robbins was alive, it seemed to me that the New York City Ballet danced his ballets harder, with more intensity, and with more full-out emotion than those of, say, Balanchine, who wasn't around anymore.

One night not long before Robbins died, a companion and I, going to the State Theater for an all-Robbins evening, found the choreographer himself sitting in front of us. At the intermission, a woman sitting in his row leaned over and told him how much she admired his ballets. He thanked her. My friend and I left him alone, respecting his privacy.

I won't presume to say how Robbins would have reacted to what I witnessed last night. As for me, I had a "passive-aggressive" reaction. I declined to clap at the curtain call. Perhaps I should have booed. If I could talk to these dancers--at least two of whom, as I said, I have in the past loved and admired--I would tell them this:

"Tonight, as I write this, I am listening to Prokoviev's "Romeo & Juliet." I bought this recording, of the Kirov Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev, after seeing Helgi Tomasson's "Romeo & Juliet" on the San Francisco Ballet. On opening night--we're talking six years ago now--there was a moment where, upon discovering that Romeo has killed her cousin, Joanna Berman's Juliet screams in agony, even as she reaches for her cousin's killer in desperate love, as she is tugged away by her nurse. This moment encapsulated not only the whole ballet, but made the music live for me. Easy to do in a story ballet, you might say, especially to this dramatic score, but Berman did the same for me in SFB's dancing of "In the Night"--I can still remember her embodying the romance of the music in one pas de deux. Because of her dancing in this section, I remember the music.

"This is the power that you, as dancers, have inside you, in your limbs and in the heart that is, THAT MUST BE connected to them. It's not hard; use your ears as a channel. Even as great a choreographer as Jerome Robbins relies on you to listen and make his ballets live. Without you, they're nothing. They become mere edifices, like the one I saw last night. Please--please--hear the music. Feel the music. Feel the ballet. Take the fire that now appears to be consuming this ballet, put it in your heart, invest your dancing with it--and make this ballet live again. Before the fire in this room of your house spreads."

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