Two decades before creating Dances at a Gathering, Jerome Robbins was immersed in bringing the complicated souls of Leonard Bernstein's and W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety into ballet form. Auden’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poem of 1947 inspired Bernstein to write his symphony in 1948-49. Robbins tackled their complex poetic and musical themes in 1950. It’s now easy to see how Robbins found kindred clan among Auden and Bernstein. All three artists’ work addressed the difficult search for meaning in life and acceptance of oneself in a post-war world emotionally charged with uncertainty and false ideas.
Age of Anxiety would not be the last time that Robbins turned to either Bernstein or Auden for inspiration. The composer and poet were major creative forces in the mid-20th century as Robbins would also come to be.
Robbins work figures prominently in the last half of New York City Ballet’s current fall season. Glass Pieces, Dances at a Gathering, Firebird (co-choreographed with Balanchine) all look to be in fine shape and are blessed with interpreters who sense the significance of the choreography as opposed to themselves.
Some claim there is no story in Dances at a Gathering, Robbins' classic from 1969 set to a collection of Chopin waltzes, etudes, and mazurkas. Perhaps there is no narrative, but there is plenty of story with a final tableau that wraps it up somberly.
Toward the end of Dances at a Gathering, the dancers wander onto the stage, milling casually as though relaxing at a picnic after a bout of play. A man dressed in green kneels down to place his hand lovingly on the earth, perhaps on a much missed soul’s resting place. Suddenly the piano music erupts into a con fuoco passage of rumbling notes that prompt the dancers to race toward the edge of the stage and peer outward as if looking into the sky for signs of a storm. They relax, but then without warning, the con fuoco rumbling returns and the dancers search the sky with concern and anxiety in their eyes. The music’s fury quickly subsides and the dancers stroll off into the rest of their lives just like W.H. Auden observed in his 1965c. nontraditional haiku:
Thoughts of his own death,
like the distant roll
of thunder at a picnic.
Last evening Megan Fairchild (in apricot), Rebecca Krohn (in mauve), Lauren King (in blue), Sterling Hyltin (in pink), Sara Mearns (in green), Robert Fairchild (in purple), Chase Finlay (in green), Zachary Catazaro (in blue), Gonzalo Garcia (in brown), and Harrison Ball (in brick) knit together their close community with dreamy lyricism, subtle humor, and exuberant play. Lauren, who danced the blue role in all of the performances with both casts this season, did so with a new poised beauty and rich musicality. Rebecca’s lovely lines and textured lyricism were as delicate as a mallow blossom. Harrison debuting in the ballet showed that, in addition to dancing with great respect for form and high energy, he can also muster up a little rapport with his partner.
Ashley Bouder’s Firebird, Zachary Catazaro’s Prince Ivan, and Ashley Laracey’s Prince’s Bride made a terrific go at bringing the Balanchine/Robbins Firebird to full life. Bouder took a spill early on when it appeared her leg buckled under her, but she completed the performance without any hint of injury, dancing with her unique electrical charge and fearless blaze. Going forward, however, we'd prefer to see her fanny splats rather than the limb twisting that occurred in last night’s spill which triggered audience heart arrhythmia.
Zachary brought a life to Prince Ivan that Justin Peck couldn’t find in the first cast. He allowed the Kastchei subjects to heave themselves at his middle with the force of a hairpin hitting a 1-Tesla magnet. This artist's dramatic output is utterly believable no matter what he’s dancing. He still owes us a Swan Lake debut from a year ago, and the interest on the debt is piling up.
Ashley Laracey’s Bride had the requisite beauty with a slightly mysterious air. She looked stunning in her red bridal dress.
The HH Pump Bump Award, Paquetá Dumond's stylishly complicated stiletto, is bestowed upon Rebecca Krohn whose mauve role in Dances at a Gathering was especially lovely.