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Jerome Robbins Centennial

Posted on March 15, 2018

Daniel Pratt attends Miami City Ballet’s Jerome Robbins Centennial Celebrations

I saw Miami City Ballet for the first time in March 2017 and it prompted me to write an appreciation of the company in my July blog. February was my birthday month, so for an early birthday treat I made another trip to see the company, this time performing in mid-January at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, as the company opened the centennial celebrations of Jerome Robbins’ birth in the US.

Since my early training, the man whom critic Sanjoy Roy calls “the first American-born ballet choreographer of international standing” occupied an exotic place in my mind. Unexposed to any Robbins choreography at school, I had only seen the seminal Dances at a Gathering in live performance until I moved to the US. My only physical reference point to Robbins in my own dancing was an enticing comment by Laura Connor teaching at the first summer course I attended, Yorkshire Ballet Seminars. Connor concluded a beautiful centre exercise with a small en dedans swivel ending in arabesque à terre: “very Jerry,” she bubbled. It felt unorthodox, throw away, and delicious to execute. Miami City Ballet similarly revelled in Robbins’ choreography, giving astute accounts of In the Night, The Cage, Other Dances and West Side Story Suite. The performance showed with exciting colour the different worlds Robbins conjured up – not only king of Broadway with such hits as On the Town and Fiddler on the Roof, he was an important interrogator of how ballet can embody and distil a social culture.

The matinée performance I saw opened with the short Circus Polka, originally created on students from the School of American Ballet for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. Lourdes Lopez, currently director of the Miami company, took the role of the Ringmaster – a part Robbins himself danced – leading 48 students from the company’s school. The girls demonstrated an ebullient grasp of the basics of technique George Balanchine refined over his career at New York City Ballet, an aesthetic Robbins would himself profit from throughout his choreographic output. This bright dancing resonated with my memories of Miami City Ballet’s performance the last time I saw them, testifying to the deep impact both choreographer’s ballets have on the spirit of the Miami institution. In the Night and Other Dances revealed a sophisticated facet to the house style.

In the Night, created in 1970, is often identified as a sibling to Dances at a Gathering. Both ballets are set to Chopin, but there is an immediate contrast in the sense of scale seen on stage: where the latter ballet shimmers with its sense of exhalation, the former sets the darkness rippling. Robbins articulates this sentiment as he rehearses the first pas de deux of In the Night in Dominique Delouche’s 1993 film Comme Les Oiseaux: “you’re night creatures. Not quite human.” The quiet strangeness Jennifer Lauren and Kleber Rebello set up as they commenced their pas de deux avoided any sense of the saccharine. This couple are portraying the flushes of first romance, and the stunning accord the Miami dancers had, the sensitive flow of their partnering, embodied this idea. Yet their bodies were also responding to unseen forces, at times pulled apart so that they rushed back together. In one intriguing moment, the ballerina runs downstage, turns and falls backwards to an effacé devant position, is picked up by her partner, who runs upstage, turns but falls forwards to an effacé derrière position. This, and indeed the entire pas de deux, demonstrates Robbins’ absorption of classicism; his understanding of the principle of departure and return.

There is a starlit nuance to many of Robbins steps choreographed to Chopin. Again using the polish composer, Simone Messmer and Renan Cerdeiro were both making role debuts in Other Dances, originally made in 1976 for the Russian stars Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. In her sturdy biography of Robbins, Deborah Jowitt notes the work “begins with a bit of a tease”, neglecting to give the audience the expected embellishments for two of ballets greatest virtuosi. Messmer was revelatory to me – her dancing has grown in my mind for weeks afterwards. Pliant and measured, there was a wonderful articulacy in her feet that resonated through to her upper body line so that Messmer, in her empire-line dress designed by Santo Loquasto, gave off the saffron glow of a Florentine painting. Messmer, however, is not sweetly careful nor does she shoot wildly from the hip, she is a modern ballerina who takes calculated risks. In the final shoulder sit of Other Dances, Messmer’s dress mistakenly covered the face of Cerdeiro: the way she audibly laughed and removed it from his face makes my point.

The drama in Robbins’ choreography is not declamatory, as it often can be in Balanchine, who offers the audience audacious and thrilling solutions to the music his choreography interprets. Robbins is, to use a tired expression, more human. Robbins’ use of folk-infused steps in his Chopin ballets could reveal some preoccupation with belonging, a nod to his central European Jewish heritage. It certainly sets ballet as an art form of memory. Dancers, though vital, ritualise nostalgia. Can it also be modern? Robbins makes an impressive case with 1951’s The Cage. Featuring a large cast of women, Robbins’ interpretation of Stravinksy’s Concerto in D describes with great brevity how the basest, animalistic, desire can command a whole community. I enjoyed the brutal quality Lauren Fadeley brought to her dancing, using her hyper-extended limbs to appropriate effect in her role as Queen of this quasi-arachnid group partaking in an initiation ritual. In the woman’s backcombed hair and nude leotards, I saw 1970s disco and African folk art, as well as contemporary fashion. Thus The Cage is an interesting ballet for this moment where we are questioning gender power roles. English National Ballet will present the ballet at Sadler’s Wells in April.

West Side Story Suite completed the afternoon, the entire company dancing and singing with verve. The melodies of Bernstein’s music, particularly “Somewhere”, always melts my heart, but I looked with renewed interest at Tony and Maria’s relationship as Jovani Furlan and Helen Ruiz caught something anticipatory, paradoxically light and substantial, stepping Converse-clad feet around each other to a flute that chirped out “Maria”. It was the kind of sudden, satisfying punctuation mark in the pace of the piece that Robbins is so good at providing. Think about the moment in Dances at a Gathering when the dancing stops, the cast looks up and out and traces the path of something far off in the firmament. I find it heart-stopping, unnerving, philosophical. It points to Robbins’ ideas about drama and what you could do with it. I suspect Robbins recognised that we are different things to different people; we construct our lives based on layers of interactions and often don’t realise what is real and what is not. His choreography, absorbing the artifice and beauty of classical ballet, the pedestrian stomp of a New Yorker, and the meditative gaze of a dreamer, shows us how we are constantly with each other but also without.

Main photograph:New York City Ballet in Dances at a Gathering, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Photographer: Paul Kolnik.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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