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New York City Ballet celebrates Robbins and Bernstein

New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins's Glass Pieces (photo by Paul Kolnik)

Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein were both born in 1918, the former on October 11 and the latter on August 25. After a program honoring three of its major choreographers earlier in the week, the New York City Ballet offered a tribute to Robbins, its other co-founder, and the composer with whom he often collaborated, seen on Friday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Robbins is most remembered for his hybridization of classical ballet with popular dance, a trend he began in his very first choreography, Fancy Free. Premiered in 1944 by the company that would become American Ballet Theater, it is set to a jazz-heavy score by Bernstein, in a foretaste of what they would create a decade later in West Side Story. The scene is wartime Manhattan, evoked immediately by the "overture," a minute or so of a recording of Big Stuff, a Bernstein original that sounds like a classic blues. NYCB's new music director, Andrew Litton, has changed the recording used at this moment to one made by Billie Holiday, the voice envisioned by both Bernstein and Robbins, although she had obviously not recorded the song at the time of the ballet's creation.

Roman Mejia, Harrison Coll, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez, the Saturday matinee's trio of sailors in a last-minute substitution, burst onto the stage one by one with cartwheels. The opening music, bubbling with enthusiasm, contains the kernel of the melody of "New York, New York, it's a helluva town" (the Bronx is up and the Battery's down, the people ride in a hole in the ground), from the musical adaptation of this ballet, On the Town. This trio was enthusiastic and physical, if not always as unified as they might have been. The style of choreography must have been bracing to see in 1944, still some years before Gene Kelly would popularize the style in countless big-production film musicals. It now feels rather dated, however, especially the interactions of the sailors with the three Passers-by, women who are minding their own business and end up basically getting harassed.

Other Reviews:

Alastair Macaulay, Then, With a Touch of Now, and a Fully Charged Prodigal Son (New York Times, January 21, 2008)

Brian Seibert, A Jerome Robbins Tribute by New York City Ballet Brims With Brio (New York Times, February 9, 2015)
The Robbins legacy came off the strongest in the first work, Glass Pieces, from 1983. Lucinda Childs had already choreographed Glass's music at that point, in Einstein on the Beach and Dance, but Robbins captured something essential about Glass's style in these excerpts from Glassworks and Akhnaten. In the opening scene (see photo above) the corps walks about busily, like the bustling city streets slowed down in the film Koyaanisqatsi, which came out just before this ballet.

Pairings and small groups of dancers in solid colors enter the scene accompanied by new musical motifs, disrupting the workaday mood with lyricism. Eventually the corps is drawn into what they are doing, a sort of metaphor for artistic inspiration. The choreography is most ravishing, however, in the slow movement, set to the "Facades" movement of Glassworks, with a gorgeous pas de deux, spotlit in front of a sort of conga-line corps silhouetted in blue light. The exceptionally strong new principal dancer Russell Janzen elegantly lifted the long-limbed Maria Kowrowski around the stage to the held, hovering notes of the soprano sax solo. The final scene, with its percussion-heavy syncopated elements, did not reveal the men of the corps in the strongest light. Conductor Andrews Sill had some trouble at times keeping musicians on opposite sides of the pit perfectly aligned in this complex, repetitive music.

The eccentric side of Robbins came across in the last piece, The Four Seasons from 1979. It is principally a choreography for the ballet of that name in the third act of Verdi's Les vêpres siciliennes, augmented by some music from the same composer's I Lombardi and Il Trovatore. The staging and costumes, with caped dancers in front of a huge, soaring crest bearing Verdi's name, seemed extremely kitschy by comparison to the week's worth of bare stages. Robbins made many jokes that matched music to movement, like the shivering ballerinas in the Winter scene. Outstanding solo work came from the poised Sarah Mearns, with an elegant, upright vertical line in the Spring section, paired beautifully with Jared Angle. Ashley Laracey was again extraordinary in the lead role of Summer, even in this least striking of the four scenes, and Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz excelled in the wine-dipped concluding dances of Fall, watched over by the athletic caprioles of Daniel Ulbricht.

This program will be repeated today at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Opera House with various casts.

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