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.

welcome to vail

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My first day in Vail can only be described as baptism by fire: a thrilling, beautiful immersion into this exrtaordinary festival of artists.

Feeling a bit drowsy from my 5am flight out of Boston (and perhaps more than a bit sensitive to the high elevation?), I fought the urge to nap and tucked into the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater instead. The dancers were finishing up a light run of Jerome Robbin’s Fancy Free, the first piece on tonight’s program. As our sailors bounced away behind the set, Tiler Peck scooted out from the wings, purple leotard preceding the iconic purple dress she would wear that evening. A few notes from Vail Dance Festival (VDF) Artistic Director Damian Woetzel, a little floor work from the rambunctious Daniel Ulbricht, some lively partnering between Angelica Generosa and Marcelo Gomes before rehearsal wraps and I’m swept off to the mountains.

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Did I think Day 1 would have me standing in the mountains opening shadows on Jeff Cirio‘s face while he wades through a creek? Nope. Can anyone resist a cool kid posing on a big rock in various samples of his own wardrobe? No again, my friends. I am here to cast light on these incredible artists in any way I can, either with words or a wind-happy reflector.

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After landsliding it in several locations, it was back to the amphitheater for a quick tour of the layout backstage. With just a few hours until the start of the show, dancers ducked in and out of dressing rooms, half-madeup, wrapped in sweats and draped in earbuds. On my way out I met Miss Jan, the 15-year VDF veteran wardrobe mistress, who has special arrangements with the ladies of the Festival:

“They need to drink extra water to stay hydrated at this elevation. I promised them all I will hook and unhook their costumes for as many bathroom breaks as they need, as long as they drink extra water,” Jan says with a spirited laugh. It’s a testament: every hand here is fully committed to helping these dancers do what they do- in any capacity necessary.

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And soon it is time for just that. Excited patrons flood the promenade at peak golden hour, live acoustic music and bronze dance sculptures their amuse-bouche. I hustle into my seat just as Woetzel makes his way onto stage to greet the audience. The amphitheater is brimming with balletomanes, spreading through the puzzle-like hybrid venue all the way up into the lawn.

The word festival denotes celebration. Let’s get this party started.