BWW Reviews: NYC Ballet Presents Jerome Robbins's Thrilling Choreography
For the second time this season, the New York City Ballet has paid tribute to one of the greats of Broadway. First the company celebrated the music of Richard Rodgers; now, the NYCB has commemorated beloved choreographer Jerome Robbins with a trio of short ballets. Some of the many shows with Robbins dances are Peter Pan, West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof. Robbins's range is astonishing (Peter Pan and Gypsy? By the same guy?), but so is his ability to work dances that are both economical and astutely expressive into dangerously sentimental material. I've often wondered when I will grow up and see West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof for the tear-jerkers they are. Then I realize that I have grown up, that I still admire these plays, and that Robbins's dances-which can sometimes demand too much movement and too much bombast of small ensembles, but regularly capture the closer, quieter moments without an single flaw-are partially to thank.
And for the second time this season, the NYCB has gathered together dances that run from ingenious to ill-advised to everything in between. Again, Robbins could pull off big compositions, but he couldn't pull them off with extraordinary results. The first selection of the night, Interplay, strains to fill the soaring David H. Koch Theater with sequences that, essentially, are glorified studio exercises. But both Interplay and the feature that follows it, the sublime Robbins-and-Leonard Bernstein collaboration Fancy Free, allow Robbins to display his highly individual talents. It's the final selection of the night-I'm Old Fashioned, a balletic homage to Fred Astaire-that over-extends itself the most, simultaneously grasping for reverence, humor, and romance and not seizing hold of any of these qualities. Despite the Broadway reputation, Robbins works best when he works in miniature.
Interplay is made up of four different movements: "Free Play", "Horseplay", "Byplay", and "Team Play". The NYCB production makes these movements flow together, and much of this has to do with the staging. In Interplay, eight dancers-four male, four female-come together, pair off, and compete against a solid azure background. Ronald Bates's lighting never changes too dramatically, and Santo Loquasto's costumes-pastel dresses for the women, bold-hued t-shirts for the men-set and sustain a tone of playfulness and preciousness.
In other words, you would get something like Interplay if you took West Side Story, removed all the grime and all the conflict, and re-did the dance sequences in afterschool-program colors. And I'm not sure that this poppy yet minimalistic production was the best way to bring out Morton Gould's versatile score, with its hints of blues and swingtime. Yet it wasn't a bad way to bring out Robbins's sense of composition. Robbins's tender duets and exuberant group sequences can get overwhelmed by the apparatus of plot, character, and sentiment in some of the plays he choreographed. Interplay has no such apparatus, only unfettered color and motion.
While Interplay can urge you to look anew at Robbins's musicals, Fancy Free is a revelation in itself. The plot is simple enough: three shore leave sailors (Andrew Veyette, Daniel Ulbricht, and Tyler Angle) trying to find dates on a summer night in New York City. That's about it. But this barebones plot is pulled off with amazing conviction. Someone (Robbins, Bernstein, everyone involved?) understood all too well how it feels to be young, drunk, and infatuated with a pretty woman. The premise is simple and good; the angular retro scenery by Oliver Smith-and the showy, exhilarated, exhilarating movements of the sailors themselves-turn Fancy Free into an oddball work of visual poetry.
The three protagonists of Fancy Free come off as rowdier Charlie Chaplins-but also as original creations. There is one fine routine where the Three Sailors distribute sticks of gum and then, one by one, flick their gum wrappers off into the distance. They perform this routine or ritual with all the care, all the seriousness of philosophers pondering some vast existential problem. At first you want to scoff at them; then, you realize that there is something touching about these three oafish men, the city rising above them, quietly sharing their sticks of gum.
In many ways, I'm Old Fashioned seems like the product of an entirely different sensibility. Inspired by a dance sequence from the Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire film You Were Never Lovelier, this elaborate ballet transports us to a world of refinement and extravagance. With its giant projection screen, enormous ensemble, and golden costumes, it's a natural fit for the gilded extravagances of the Koch Theater. The refinement, however, could use some work. There are duets upon duets, and some of them are marred by awkward motions and nonexistent chemistry. (Attention male dancers: If you have to lift a female dancer, please, don't treat her like a piece of in-flight luggage.) And while the men's costumes are meant to recall Astaire's formalwear, what we get, instead, are a lot of black tights and a lot of black jackets that look like shrunken pea coats.
It's easy to interpret this as a subconscious, symbolic admission that nobody on stage is fit to wear Fred Astaire's tux, let alone his shoes. Astaire and Hayworth had plenty of chemistry: a chemistry that's equal parts tenderness and jaunty competition. Robbins apparently understood chemistry like this, but he's created a dance that (literally, thanks to that giant movie screen) labors in the shadow of You Were Never Lovelier. And if you can't top the original, why bother?
On second look, though, maybe the NYCB was right to bother with I'm Old Fashioned. It won't blow you away, but it should make you go home and add a bunch of Fred Astaire movies to your Netflix queue. That's when you'll be blown away. For all its faults, this Robbins showcase reveals some of the pop culture dances we take for granted as the works of greatness that they are. All this greatness, hiding in plain sight.