BWW Dance Review: Balanchine and Robbins at New York City Ballet
I think it was story night at New York City Ballet on October 10, 2018. Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free and West Side Story Suite and Balanchine's Prodigal Son. They're all stories, not all using the classical ballet idiom, but why were they all presented on this one program?
I try to connect the dots.
It finally dawned on me. Jerome Robbins was a presence in all the ballets, since he performed the role of the prodigal when Balanchine revived the ballet on February 23, 1950, with Maria Tallchief as the Siren.
A parable about the wandering son, it was the last ballet choreographed by Balanchine for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1929. After Diaghilev's death that same year it disappeared until this revival. There were other Prodigal Sons in the intervening years, but none with the Balanchine stamp.
When Edward Villella danced the role in 1959, his dynamic physicality set the role apart from many other male roles in the repertoire. But as originally choreographed by Balanchine on Sergei Lifar, this was not a role with a vigorous thrust, since Lifar was not an accomplished technician.
And Robbins? Since there are no films of him performing the prodigal, I thought I would go to the history books. Edward Denby, probably the most astute dance critic of his time, said when interviewed about the performance: "Wonderful. Very simple. The whole physical force of it wasn't so great as [Villella's], and I don't remember that leap in the first scene that's always striking in [Villella's] version...But the line, the continuity of emotion, was very strong..." John Martin, the New York Times dance critic, wrote: "It moves with direct and sweeping force, through fantastically perceptive and daring episodes, to a conclusion of irresistible emotional conviction" Robbins spoke admiringly of Balanchine's coaching, as well as working with Felia Doubrovska, the ballet's original Siren. Maria Tallchief, who first assumed the role of the Siren in this production, was not enamored of her part: "Emotionally speaking, it was very good., but the configurations had so much to do with length of limb: there were times when I was supposed to wrap myself around Jerry, and the length of my arms and legs was simply not sufficient."
As for myself, I have always enjoyed the ballet. I find it not only a wonderful blast from the dance past, but also an interesting and emotionally gripping story. The prodigal swaggers and cavorts, until he meets the towering Siren, who reduces him to a puddle. Maria Kowrowski dances the Siren with a domineering and haughty demeanor, not caring what happens to her prey, as long as she acquires her share of his possessions.
As many times as I have seen this performance, I am always captive to it.
The prodigal was danced by Joaquin de Luz, who will be retiring this Sunday, October 14. Mr. Luz is passionate, absorbing, he hits all the right notes. In short, he is excellent, as he has always been. His long acquaintance with the role has given him the opportunity to delve into character portrayal, as well as delineating character through mime. He realizes that the part offers wide scope for acting, and he submits to the challenges. Most beautiful of all is the final sequence when the prodigal return from his wandering, dressed in rags and with no earthly possessions. His father comes out of the tent to see him. The prodigal is ashamed but knows he must beg his father for forgiveness. At first the prodigal is frightened, but slowly he inches his way to his father, who picks him up, cradles him in his arms and carries him off into the family tent.
This sequence never fails to move me and, as portrayed by De Luz and Ask la Cour as the father, it is one that is imprinted on ballet goers' minds. No one breathes in the audience, and the curtain always falls to a deafening silence. And then we think. Is this what all our peregrinations have wrought? To come back home?
Robbins' 1944 Fancy Free, the ballet that put him on the dance map, is an excellent period ballet, and I say that because, in the cultural light of 2018, many people are highly irritated by its message.
This is spring 1944. Remember?
The ballet is set in some New York bar. Three sailors are out looking to pick up girls. Two seem to be lucky, one is not. Two women enter the bar and are wooed by the sailors. The sailors dance for the women, a fight ensues and the girls run out. The sailors relax, another woman appears and walks by. The sailors run after her. The curtain falls.
Pretty simple, wouldn't you think? I'm sure Robbins thought it modest also. As I already said, it was wartime, another era, another century, another----whatever you want to call it. And I hear the critiques: these men are pawing the women; how could they have done such a thing?; this can't be presented like this; it has to be changed to reflect current ethics and attitudes.
I don't believe that. And I stand by what I say. You can't rewrite history to suit today's beliefs. Does this mean we're going to start rewriting Stalin's purges, WW I, Hitler, Alexander the Great? Can't we just take Fancy Free for what it is: a bunch of lonely people trying to make a connection, to feel loved, since they might be shipping overseas to death? That's never stated directly in the ballet. But the aura remains. Leave it alone.
I suppose we'll be re-writing Wuthering Heights soon.
Daniel Ulbricht, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Joseph Gordon were all effective in their parts: Ulbrich, happy go lucky; Villarini-Velez, goofy; and Gordon, dreamy. Sterling Hyltin as the woman pursued by Gordon, Mary Elizabeth Sell as the woman with the pocketbook, and Miriam Miller as the woman who lures the sailors just before the final curtain, were all fine.
Fancy Free will live on, I can promise you that.
West Side Story Suite, choreographed by Robbins for the company in 1995, is what I'd call Robbins in his most meditative. It has raw energy, drive and a bit of soupiness, especially in the finale when the stage lights go on and we are somewhere in...heaven?
But it's cumulative power, especially as the dancers sing Somewhere, hits you right in the solar plexus. You are mesmerized. And it sticks in your mind.
It's still in mine.
I wish I could call it a total success, but perhaps New York City Ballet company is not the right venue for this, which combines dancing, singing and even some acting Broadway calls for singers who can dance, and vice versa, but here Andrew Veyette as Riff, the leader of the Sharks, can sing, but there was no electricity in his presence. He should explode in such songs as Cool, yet he seems subdued. He is not a musical theater performer. It's just that deep well of song and action that propels us out of our seats on Broadway, does not materialize. These dancers are too well behaved. You could imagine having tea with them. But a rumble?
Justin Peck as Bernardo, Georgina Pazcoguin as Anita, and Brittany Pollack, who recently played Louise in the Carousel revival, are effective, but I still feel that the pizazz is missing. I wonder what Jerome Robbins would be saying if he were still with us?
I still admire the effort. And I still love Jerome Robbins. We were so lucky to have had him at City Ballet, on Broadway, even in films. He could be a tyrant, he did things that did not win him the popularity award, but...We love him for his creativity, his sensitivity, his embracement of the American cultural scene.
Something wonderful? Yes and no. But still something extraordinary.
Photo: Paul Kolnik