upclose: jerome robbins

“Go somewhere you’ve been once before,” Damian Woetzel recalls the instructions of Mr. Jerome Robbins as Herman Cornejo took the stage. Cam, the pianist, prepares for the first solo of Dances at a Gathering. “I remember,” Woetzel’s voice trails as Chopin’s chords transport me…

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Herman Cornejo in Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, photo by Erin Baiano.

…back to my childhood home, the sound of my sister’s Sunday morning piano practice drifting up the stairs, riding the scent of bacon from the kitchen and pulling me from a dream. The same familiar mazurka rises up from the orchestra pit at the Vilar Performing Arts Center. It floats through Cornejo’s sweeping steps just like a sweet smell on a breeze and I’m transported back again.

The first of Jerome Robbins’ iconic “piano ballets”, Dances at a Gathering marks the choreographer’s return to New York City Ballet in 1969. This meditative piece was made to be danced “for the dancer, as if no one is watching,” according to our host Woetzel, who graces the screen above us in vintage video footage rehearsing with Robbins himself. What a revolutionary idea, using the stage as a private space for the dancer to reflect.

The evening moves in a relatively chronological order, taking the audience through the evolution of Jerry’s work as a choreographer and dancer. This notion of the audience as an unnoticed observer is evident throughout. Even in his first work for American Ballet Theater, Fancy Free, a highly entertaining marriage of broadway and ballet, the audience peers through a window, as noted in my latest review of the piece. This evening we are given even more insight into those personalities, with demonstrations from Daniel Ulbricht the “Chicago Guy”, Corey Stearns the “Long Island Farmboy”, and Marcelo Gomes as “Mr. Miami”.

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Marcelo Gomes, Cory Stearns, and Daniel Ulbricht in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, photo by Erin Baiano.

The evening feels like an interactive ballet, with fun facts and bits of history tucked behind each wing. Damian Woetzel draws back the curtains, revealing intimate bits of Jerry’s working style that make us feel as though the choreographer is in the room. Samplings of Robbins’ work carry on with Ulbricht’s display of the fun “horseplay” solo from Interplay. We see some of Jerry’s more experimental work, with Lauren Lovette‘s interpretation of The Cage and Unity Phelan and Jared Angle‘s silent introspection in Moves.

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Jared Angle and Lauren Lovette in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage, photo by Erin Baiano.

Robbin’s iconic reimagining of the Nijinsky classic Afternoon of a Faun is danced with poise and savory tension by Isabella Boylston and Calvin Royal III. Through Woetzel’s commentary we learn that this updated version was inspired by famed Balanchine dancer, Edward Villella. Robbins happened to walk by the studio as Villella sat alone, stretching, noticing his own reflection in the mirror. The ballet emulates this experience, using the fourth wall as a mirror through which two young dancers find each other. The imagining of a mirror forces the dancers to completely ignore the audience and dance for themselves- Jerry’s favorite indulgence. The effect results in a ballet even more provocative than its controversial predecessor.

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Damian Woetzel coaching Calvin Royal III and Isabella Boylston in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, photo by Erin Baiano.

The evening continues with a tasting of ballets being revived this weekend, including Lauren Lovette and Devon Teuscher in Rondo and Lovette with Joseph Gordon in Three Chopin Dances. Displays of Jerry’s broadway works ignite Damian Woeztel, who joins Carla Korbës for a gang dance-off from West Side Story and Vail Dance Festival Artist-in-Residence Michelle Dorrance in a gender-bending tap section of Gypsy. He catches his breath as we watch a clip from The King & I and I start to wonder if the references to my childhood are somehow supernaturally intended.

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Jared Angle and Tiler Peck in Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, photo by Erin Baiano.

As Tiler Peck and Jared Angle take on a pas de deux from Dances later, my nostalgia returns. Back to the home I grew up in, I am in the side yard now. It’s summertime. The windows of our old colonial are all open and my sister’s Chopin wafts outside into the sunshine. I am surrounded by tiny blue flowers, which I study as they bend in the wind, letting go of a petal here and there. For  moment, the wind pauses and they settle into stillness. Peck and Angle’s delicate partnering and soft movements describe this memory with an eerie similarity. In the upstage left corner the both suspend relevé. An emotional Heather Watts tells us Jerry’s intention to “distill movement down to nothing.” It’s quite literally breathtaking.

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