True. Last night's presentation of The Jerome Robbins Award to 26 NYCB ballerinas, who used their extraordinary artistry over a sixty-plus year span to bring his work to life, was not an official NYCB event. The Jerome Robbins Foundation was given a few minutes of stage time following the second intermission to make the presentations. Had it been an official NYCB event, the company's artistic director probably would have been on stage as well to congratulate . . . Suzanne, Gelsey, Heather among the former stars of the company. Now that's something that would have filled every last seat in the theater. But no, last night, it was just the ballerinas and the very big spirit of Jerome Robbins who managed to bring the less-than-capacity but passionately vocal audience to its feet. Chita Rivera, the most famous "Anita" in Robbins' West Side Story on Broadway, hosted the event. The fourth ring proper (rows C and above) had a few people in it but was essentially empty, and once again there were pockets - no, we should now call them pocks as in pock marks - of empty seats in the orchestra and the other rings.
When great ballerinas retire, it's hard on the audience. It's difficult to cope with the reality that no more new memories will be made, and it's difficult to cope with the thought that maybe no other artist will ever come along who will come even close to matching the magic of the retiring ballerina. Last night saw clear evidence standing on the stage that as ballet is passed from generation to generation, there will always be new artists who bring us something unique to cherish and value just as their predecessors did.
And as these ballerinas, retired or near retirement, were individually introduced and walked very proudly to the center of the stage to be acknowledged, some still had new memories to make for us. Suzanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland held hands. Kyra Nichols and Patricia McBride brought with them on stage what could only be described as an aura of warmth and generosity. Allegra Kent, only slightly unsteady without her cane, hesitated to leave the stage with the others without taking one last bow. But the memory that Haglund will probably hold the longest from last night is that of Violette Verdy, who surely must be the most glamorous NYCB ballerina of all time – well, she's French, you know – entering the stage with the authoritative grace of a dignitary and embracing the audience with her arms in the grand style of a Delibes anthem. She will soon turn 78 years old but still has the energy and skip of someone half her age.
The Playbill for the evening included an insert prepared by the Jerome Robbins Foundation in which each of the living honored ballerinas offered a few words about what it was like working with Robbins. Suzanne Farrell said that Jerry was always polite, helpful, and accommodating. Jilliana recalled how she put purple makeup under her eyes to make her look tired with the hope that Jerry would cut short an early morning rehearsal. Melinda Roy told how Robbins allowed her to use hats of her own creation in performances of The Concert. Yvonne Mounsey remembered how after being cast as the Queen in The Cage, Robbins began calling her "Queenie." Gelsey Kirkland recalled when Robbins enlightened her that a Pas de Deux had two people, not just one, and while working on The Cage, he told her how impressed he was with the intensity of her attack on the male species.
While the presentation of the Jerome Robbins Award was the highlight of the evening, there was some fine dancing on the stage as well in an all-Robbins program. 2&3 Part Inventions included an especially lovely interpretation by Lauren Lovette whose beautiful, curving arabesque line was on display throughout.
In Memory of... was danced by Wendy Whelan, Charles Askegard, and Jared Angle. The major appeal of this ballet is – come on, admit it – the title, in particularly, the ... . But to be truthful, this ballet has a whole lot of walking around in it that doesn't do a lot to evoke anything but, well, walking around...
The evening closed with a superb performance of West Side Story Suite with Chase Finlay, Robert Fairchild, and Amar Ramasar as Tony, Riff, and Bernardo. Jenifer Ringer, Lauren Lovette, and Gretchen Smith were Anita, Maria, and Rosalia. Fairchild, Ramasar, and Finlay were an impressively strong trio who led the cast with exceptional dancing and drama. Great story. Great steps. Great theater. But the star of West Side Story is and always has been the Leonard Bernstein score. The NYCB orchestra, conducted by Clotilde Otranto, gave the music all the punch, tenderness, and rhythm needed to shake the spirits in the house and make them smile.
Haglund bestows this stunning multi-colored Yves Saint Laurent Pump Bump Award to the "Jerry dancers" honored last night by the Robbins Foundation.