IN: Reviews

Robbins at 100: Celebrated at the Pillow


A young Jerome Robbins

While Tanglewood’s Leonard Bernstein centenary celebration was climaxing this Saturday with a huge concert/birthday party, Jacob’s Pillow, the BSO’s summer neighbor in the Berkshires, hosted Stars of American Ballet in five classic ballets by Bernstein’s colleague and friend, Jerome Robbins (1918-1998). Led by New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Daniel Ulbricht, the company of leading dancers from NYCB mounted  examples from 50 years of Robbins’s choreography, set to scores ranging from Morton Gould’s jazzy Interplay piano concerto to live selections from the solo works of Bach and Chopin.

An eight-minute romantic pas de deux titled Andantino, created for the New York City Ballet’s 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival in the New York State Theater with the original lighting design of Ronald Bates, opened the show. The lilting Andantino sempli -Prestissimo (second) movement of Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto (B-flat minor, op. 23, 1875) inspired the title. Robbins created the work for NYCB dancers Darci Kistler and Ib Anderson; in this version Indiana Woodward and Andrew Veyette constituted a highly contrasting, dramatic duo. Woodward, a lithe, elegant ballerina who rose to soloist in February 2017, won the Clive Barnes Foundation Award in 2016 and has originated featured roles in NYCB productions of Warren Carlyle’s Something to Dance About, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway to Ballet, Lauren Lovette’s For Clara, and Peter Walker’s ten in seven.

The most striking work of the first half featured a trio of dancers in one movement from Robbins’s 1982 Four Chamber Works, developed for the NYCB’s June 1982 Stravinsky Centennial Celebration. The full four-part ballet set five pieces of music (three parts of his 1952 orchestration of the 1920 Concertino for string quartet alongside two of the 1919 Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo). The original cast featured Merrill Ashley, Sean Lavery, and Mel Tomlinson in a striking, fluid series of geometric and angular poses.

The single 12-minute featured selection juxtaposed the most virtuosic movement of Stravinsky’s three clarinet pieces with a single part of his Concertino, in the revised version for twelve chamber musicians. Principal dancer Teresa Reichlen shone as the central figure in this jaunty, appealing work, aptly partnered by NYCB corps de ballet members Daniel Applebaum and Andrew Scordato. The trio was well-balanced, superbly combining precision and playfulness through interconnected turns, interrupted partnering, natural movement, and toe work. The choreography’s relationship to the music is complex, with one dancer often finishing a musical phrase that another has begun. A regular featured soloist in NYCB favorites by Robbins, Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon, and Balanchine, Reichlen brought elegance and precision to a work that can come across as inconsequential and circus-like, but here, an added gravitas closely mirrored Stravinsky’s kaleidoscopic approach to timbre and form.

Director Daniel Ulbricht’s interpretation of Robbins’s A Suite of Dances, developed for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project in 1994, closed the first half. Towards the end of his life, Robbins’s love for Bach inspired him to create three ballets. He set A Suite of Dances (for Baryshnikov himself) to four movements from Bach’s cello suites. This charming, naturalistic 14-minute ballet requires the dancer to act as a partner to an onstage cellist. Ulbricht fully inhabited his solo role while evoking widely contrasting emotions for each section. He wore the original costume designed by Santo Loquasto (a deep red velvet tunic) and played off his instrumental partner with easy-going wit and flair. Cellist Ann Kim gave a dramatic, visually arresting interpretation of four movements from Bach’s suites (Prelude & Gigue from Suite No. 1 in G Major, BMV 1007; Sarabande from Suite No. 5 in C Minor, BMV 1011; and Prelude from Suite No. 6 in D Major, BMV 1012): her use of rubato to emphasize and elongate unusual parts of phrases interrupted the sometimes motoric flow of Bach’s work, bringing out new subtleties of harmony and form that were mirrored in Ulbricht’s interpretive choices. Of the evening’s many pairings, this proved the most convincing.

After a long, cool intermission during which the audience poured out of the historic Ted Shawn Theater, the second half felt like a retrospective of Robbins’s earlier career. A pastiche of solos and duets came from Robbins’s Chopin ballets, entitled Chopin Dances. Susan Walters, the NYCB’s solo pianist since 1997 accompanied from onstage (sometimes in almost total darkness) with assurance and vigor, though suffering unfortunate competition from loud feedback throughout the first section. Dancers Anthony Huxley and Daniel Ulbricht alternated solo sections originally choreographed for Edward Villella (Dances at a Gathering, 1969) and Mikhail Baryshnikov (from Other Dances, 1976). The earlier ballet is an hour-long multi-part suite for ten dancers set to 18 (mostly) waltzes and mazurkas by Chopin; NYCB commissioned is from Robbins for its 1969 spring season. Other Dances honored two famous Russian defectors Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova with an elegant 18-minute duo combining Chopin’s folk-infused romanticism with pure classical ballet technique. By removing the female dancers from both equations, Ulbricht’s conception of the choreography transformed the stage into a competitive arena, showcasing both male dancers’ virtuosity, power, and skill in dramatic characterization.

In a fitting conclusion, the sold-out Pillow audience witnessed a rare performance of Robbins’s Interplay (1945). His first such work (Fancy Free, 1944) had the highlighted the Stars of American Ballet’s last visit to the Pillow in 2014, members of the Boston Ballet danced it at Tanglewood earlier this month [reviewed HERE].

Interplay last played the Pillow in 1949 under its original title of American Concertette; it consists of an exuberant solo and sinuous duet framed by two jazz-infused ensembles of four pairs of dancers. Dancer Sebastian Villarini-Velez entertained with his interpretation of Horseplay (musically, a jazz gavotte), and soloist Unity Phelan’s exceptional work in the bluesy Byplay was one of the standouts of the evening.

This fascinating gem from Billy Rose’s Concert Varieties at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater transported us back to June 1945, more than a decade before Robbins would partner with Leonard Bernstein for the landmark West Side Story. Morton Gould’s fantastic piano concerto supported Robbins’s trademark shifts and humorous juxtapositions: Robbins heard its premiere on the radio on August 25, 1943, featuring Spanish-born pianist José Iturbi Báguena (you might remember Iturbi as the pianist featured in classic MGM films such as Thousands Cheer and Anchors Aweigh). Gould’s music here recalls his Tap Dance Concerto through sections titled I. With Drive and Vigour and IV. Very Fast: more movement than melody, this is a perfect echo from the age of roaring big band and jazz-infused orchestral experiments. Renamed Interplay, it was the second ballet that Jerome Robbins choreographed, after his huge success with Fancy Free. It entered the NYCB repertory in 1952.

Stars, a repertory company, travels nationally and internationally during breaks from the regular NYCB season, “bringing quality ballet and dance education and outreach to far-flung communities, including a thrilling trip to Mongolia and a tour of Hawaii,” in the words of its founding director Daniel Ulbricht. Since 2008, Ulbricht has encouraged his NYCB colleagues (and a few friends from San Francisco Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Boston Ballet) to join him in bringing classic ballets and ballet scores to “a lot of places [that] don’t have exposure to this caliber of dancer.”

Interplay by Jerome Robbins (Paul Kolnik photo)

“We’re trying to create a bridge back to our home companies.” Outreach events, master classes, and “meet-and-greets” complement Stars performances, so that each community gets one-on-one time with the dancers. In recent years, some of the young dancers participating in the master classes have even been invited to audition for The School of American Ballet in New York City.

Over time Ulbricht has gravitated more towards Robbins’s ballets. “His work goes beyond technique. There’s an authenticity and a community onstage. It feels like you’re dancing with friends.” Ulbricht’s goals for the company include presenting more in the Midwest, reviving American classics, and championing new voices. “I want them all to know Robbins and I want them all to know Balanchine,” said Ulbricht. “And the new choreographers too.”

Comments Off on Robbins at 100: Celebrated at the Pillow