New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

May 3, 2018
Spring Gala: Tribute to Jerome Robbins

— by Jerry Hochman

More than any other choreographer of his time, Jerome Robbins moved the heart. And moving the heart was the goal achieved by New York City Ballet’s Tribute to Jerome Robbins, which, in the form of NYCB’s annual Spring Gala, began the company’s three-week celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Robbins’s birth.

I have some quibbles about the ballets selected for the five programs that together comprise the celebration, which I’ll address in due course. But Thursday night’s tribute started things off on the right foot. Five dances were presented: Robbins’s own The Four Seasons, his rarely seen Circus Polka, a world premiere by Justin Peck titled Easy, A Suite of Dances – a piece Robbins created in 1994 for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, and the world premiere of Something to Dance About – a compendium of “Robbins’s Broadway Hits” selected, directed, and staged by Warren Carlyle. While The Four Seasons set the tone, the evening’s final two pieces were by far the most miraculous. A Suite of Dances demonstrates in one brief piece all those qualities that made Robbins as fine a choreographer as he was, and that makes him the beloved choreographer he is – and it was given a performance by Joaquin De Luz that matched the choreography’s brilliance in every respect. And if one didn’t leave the theater after Carlyle’s staging of “Robbins’s Broadway Hits” choking back a tear, one either wasn’t paying attention, or had a heart of stone.

The evening opened with remarks from Maria Kowroski, the last remaining active member of the company who worked directly with Robbins. Kowroski’s eloquence of speech is no less formidable than her eloquence of movement, and in a brief, maybe 4 minute address to the house filled with glitterati (including Allegra Kent, Wendy Whelan, and other former, current, and future NYCB dancers of distinction), she captured Robbins’s essence, referencing, among other things, Robbins’s uncanny ability to “create an atmosphere” and to infuse “a slice of humanity” into his dances – that quality of his work that I’ve frequently recognized.

Following a brief compilation of film that showed Robbins choreographing, demonstrating, or just explaining in his own words what he was doing and what he hoped to accomplish, the choreographic celebration began. The Four Seasons is a well-loved ballet that can easily be given short shrift: on the surface, it seems more cute than substantial. And I must admit that for that reason I thought it was a poor choice to begin a Robbins retrospective. I was wrong on both counts – it was a perfect choice to introduce the various choreographic “seasons” of Robbins’s oeuvre, and this was not so much a retrospective as a celebration.

Robbins’s lighthearted take on the Verdi score (excerpts curated from four separate compositions), however, masks the wizardry behind each of the four season segments. Not only is the ballet fun to watch, in large measure it’s tough as nails to execute optimally, which in all but one respect the company did. Indiana Woodward, Joseph Gordon, and Ralph Ippolito danced the fresh-as-fallen-snow leads in the “Winter” segment (with a nod also to Claire Von Enck’s particularly frosty snow bunny); Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle led “Spring,” with an especially buoyant Angle; Teresa Reichlen and Aaron Sanz were appropriately sultry in their leading roles in “Summer” (and although he looked unusually thin, in his role debut Sanz danced superbly); and collectively Tiler Peck, Zachary Catazaro, and Daniel Ulbricht chased away the premature NYC summer doldrums in minutes in their lead roles in “Fall.” Peck brought the house down – as usual; Catazaro pulled off a memorable save after briefly seeming to lose focus; and Ulbricht was…well…Ulbricht (he could dance Puck-like roles, as is his role in “Fall,” in his sleep, but never does). The only disappointment was Mearns in “Spring”: she executed the complex steps perfectly – she always does. But this role requires lightness and the welcome warmth of a spring breeze, and her languid weightiness didn’t work with me. Those who may recall Kyra Nichols’s airy and crystalline performances in this role will know what I mean.

Circus Polka premiered during the company’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, and has been infrequently presented on the DHK Theater stage since. Perhaps this appearance will prompt more regular presentations. Stravinsky’s score was originally choreographed by Balanchine on commission from Ringling Brothers … for young elephants, but in Robbins’s hands the same score becomes a showpiece for 48 students from the School of American Ballet (all girls), 16 from each of three age levels, each group costumed in distinctive pastel-colored pink, green, and blue costumes). The kids were wonderful – as well as precociously adorable – and their attitude and ability indicates that the company’s embarrassment of riches will likely continue long into the future. Ask la Cour was the effusively restrained Ringmaster (a role originated by Robbins himself), and the young dancers’ forming the choreographer’s initials in the dance’s final image added an emotional tickle to the celebratory atmosphere that Robbins created for the SAB students – and which here had the effect of the SAB students returning the favor.

The evening’s disappointment was the world premiere of Justin Peck’s Easy (the title references Robbins’s oft-quoted caution to his dancers coupled, apparently, with a slow, downward motion of his hands, to not overdo the choreography and to take it “easy”).

Disappointment, of course, is relative – and as with some other recent Peck dances, there’s more here than meets the eye. But this “sneaker” ballet to Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, an obvious salute to Robbins’s youthfully energetic “kids-in-a-playground” dances such as Interplay, New York Export: Opus Jazz, and West Side Story, is all technique (some of it fantastic), with only a patina of the humanity that Robbins infused into his dances. But it’s not, er, easy to make programmed movement look spontaneous – as Peck does here – and I suspect that Easy (and its color-block costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) will grow in a different context. Claire Kretzschmar, Unity Phelan, Woodward, Preston Chamblee, Harrison Coll, and Sean Suozzi were the effervescent 21st century take on 1950s and 60s teens, with Woodward and Kretzschmar, and Coll and Suozzi, particularly outstanding in their duets and solos.

A Suite of Dances is such a perfect, and perfectly awesome, little dance that words are insufficient to describe it. To selected movements from J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello, this gem is a little remindful of every dance in which a performer is responding to the sounds and spirit of a particular instrument (Balanchine’s Duo Concertant comes to mind), coupled with a solo form of Robbins’s Other Dances, but those comparisons don’t do it justice. In six brief segments, bracketed by an opening and closing in which the dancer sits enraptured by the sound and spirit of the cello-playing (superbly played by Ann Kim), Robbins inputs everything that makes Robbins Robbins – humor, folk idioms, musicality, understated complexity and virtuosity, soul, heart and humanity. De Luz’s performance (and Kim’s as well) was a level or two above extraordinary – certainly one of his finest, and a tribute of its own to De Luz’s artistry in his final NYCB season. I never saw this piece previously (and consequently have no memory of Baryshnikov’s performance with which to compare it), but I can’t imagine it being executed better.

I also can’t imagine any dance being more celebratory of its honoree than Something to Dance About.

It would be easy to be dismissive of Carlyle’s piece– after all, it’s “just” a compilation of excerpts from Robbins’s Broadway choreography. But this is a compilation that is so skillfully conceived and executed, and that so effectively captures the breadth of Robbins’s Broadway accomplishments and grabs the heart in the process, that the fact that it’s shamelessly obvious is both beside the point – and the point. And it’s no small accomplishment to weave a visual tapestry of twelve distinctive excerpts from eight Broadway shows into a seamless entertainment and homage, and to make every one of the cast of thousands that filled the stage look good in the process.

There are too many highlights here to focus on highlights, but I’ll give it a shot: Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette’s vocal (yes, vocal) and dance rendition of “All I Need is the Girl” from Gypsy; Lauren Lovette and De Luz in various excerpts from West Side Story; the segue from Lovette and De Luz to Peck and Taylor Stanley in “Shall We Dance” from The King and I; Peck and Ulbricht’s explosive exuberance in “Charleston” from Billion Dollar Baby; Mearns’s spirited and polished earthiness leading “America” from West Side Story; and the corps of male dancers in the “Wedding Dance” from Fiddler on the Roof. All this is tied together by the gorgeous costumes by Toni Leslie James (coupled with the fastest costume changes on record), Beowulf Boritt’s set design, the musical arrangement and orchestration respectively by Rob Berman and Jonathan Tunick, the joyful, celebratory execution by the always fantastic NYCB Orchestra (under the baton of Music Director Andrew Litton), and most notably the sparkling vocals by Jessica Vosk, beginning with “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan and ending with “Something Wonderful” from The King and I (in which you might catch a back-door reference to Robbins’s I’m Old Fashioned tribute to Fred Astaire). Something to Dance About, like its subject, is something wonderful.

In the mid-1970s, I was crazy enough about ballet to have had three NYCB subscriptions – two in the nosebleed section, and one splurge in the orchestra. At one of these performances in which I had a third row just-off-center seat in the orchestra (barely managing to dodge fabled conductor Robert Irving’s right elbow), Jerome Robbins sat next to me. [I don’t remember the dances that night, unfortunately (obviously there must have been at least one Robbins piece on the program).] I was knowledgeable enough even then to understand that he wasn’t there for chit-chat; nevertheless, I’ve always regretted that I didn’t attempt to say something to him – at least, to thank him. But with last night’s program, I suspect Robbins got the message – from the company, the audience, and myself.