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New York City Ballet pays tribute to Jerome Robbins in honor of his 100th birthday
New York City Ballet's month-long fall season kicked off this week, and the eclectic lineup includes pieces by founder George Balanchine, new works by emerging choreographers and a farewell performance by retiring principal dancer Joaquin De Luz. But for fans who adore musicals as much as classical dance, the culmination of company's centennial tribute to the late Jerome Robbins is particularly exciting.
From the start of his prodigious career, Robbins was a master of Broadway and ballet. His very first ballet, Fancy Free, which launched his lauded collaboration with composer Leonard Bernstein, garnered effusive ovations at the old Metropolitan Opera House in April 1944. In December of that same year, the duo's On the Town opened on Broadway. Both men were just 26 years old.
For the next half century until his death in 1998, Robbins continued to thrive in commercial theatre (The King and I, Gypsy, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof) while simultaneously creating dozens of enduring works for leading ballet companies.
Robbins actually started out at Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) at age 21, where he premiered Fancy Free and several other pieces. But on October 11, 1948 (which just happened to be his 30th birthday), he attended the now-legendary debut performance of New York City Ballet. He knew immediately that he wanted to be part of Balanchine's new troupe. Not long after, he joined NYCB as both a dancer and a choreographer, and was promoted to associate artistic director the next year. Robbins' creations have been an integral part of the company's repertory ever since.
After performing three weeks of his work this past spring, NYCB wraps up its Robbins celebration with a pair of dynamic programs. Robbins 100 (October 11-13) features his choreography to Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun and Chopin's Other Dances, plus Something to Dance About, a collection of his pieces for Broadway. Short Stories (October 10 and October 13) showcases Robbins' Fancy Free and West Side Story Suite alongside Balanchine's Prodigal Son.
Christine Redpath, a former NYCB soloist, worked closely with Robbins. As a dancer, she experienced his notoriously tortuous creative process firsthand in the '70s, and later assisted him as he choreographed. Since 1984, she has been responsible for overseeing his NYCB legacy, helping dancers learn his work.
"His ballets, despite the process sometimes being long and arduous, felt good to dance," she says. She recalls Robbins' frequent comment, "easy, baby" as he encouraged the dancers to be their natural selves on stage. "He wanted you to dance with your partner, and the other people on stage, and to be relaxed -- to dance without worrying about technique so much," she says.
When Redpath teaches Robbins' choreography to dancers today, she tries to communicate that to the performers. "The steps they can pretty much manage -- they've been schooled very well," she says. "But they're still performing, which he didn't want. He wanted you to just dance."
NYCB principal dancer Tiler Peck is a veteran at performing Robbins' challenging choreography. "It's kind of incredible when you watch the different works and realize they were all made by one person," she says. Peck especially loves performing Fancy Free, Other Dances and Dances at a Gathering (Robbins' 1969 hour-long masterwork which NYCB is set to revive next spring) now that she's more mature. "When you're a young dancer, you think you need to give 100% in every step," she says. "Robbins' works is not very presentational. I feel like it's more just dancing for each other, and it's about being in the moment. It's hard to do 'nothing.' It's very much about relating to your partner. In Other Dances, it's just you, your partner and the pianist, and you guys are basically doing a trio together."
Something to Dance About, NYCB's lavish retrospective of the choreographer's Broadway work staged by Tony winner Warren Carlyle, is the centerpiece of the Robbins 100 program. It weaves together excerpts from a cavalcade of musicals, highlighting famous numbers as well as lesser-known ones. Peck is featured in sections from The King and I, Billion Dollar Baby and others. "I think Warren picked some of the best pieces to show Robbins' range," she says. "It was a hard task to be given, to do a tribute to him, but I think he paid really great respect to Robbins' work."
Although the 29 year old is too young to have worked with Robbins himself, Peck says she's gained a sense of the man through his choreography. Her enthusiasm for his output is a testament to the timelessness of his creations, which continue to enthrall new generations of dancers and audiences. "A lot of his roles that I perform feel so romantic," Peck says. "The Scherzo duet in Dances at a Gathering -- there is hardly anything better than that music and those steps. He had to have a sensitive side. You hear all these stories about how hard he was to work with, but there is something very caring and affectionate that flows through his work."
If you want even more Robbins, head to Lincoln Center where you can see American Ballet Theatre perform Fancy Free and Other Dances in October, and peruse the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' exhibit Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York, which opens on September 26.
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Tiler Peck and Joseph Gordon in NYCB's Fancy Free. Photos by Paul Kolnik.