The 1971 ballet “Goldberg Variations,” by Jerome Robbins, has a reputation for being long, and, for that reason, one of the choreographer’s “difficult” ballets. Robbins used all thirty of the keyboard variations Bach developed on a simple, mournful theme. With the exception of three in G minor they are in a single key, G major. Almost perversely, Robbins kept all the repeats. The music is played at a more leisurely pace than in most keyboard recitals. And in the first half of the ballet, there are few large ensembles or showy steps. “Goldberg” is a ballet that asks us to look, listen, and then look some more; to slow our breathing, sit back, and stay a while.
What “Goldberg” is not, is boring. I’ve found my experience of performances to be mutable. A twenty-minute piece can feel endless, while a much longer one, when consistently engaging, and engagingly danced, retains a feeling of immediacy, as if it existed in a wrinkle in time. Distractions fall away, details pop, and it is possible to follow a train of thought from beginning to end. “Goldberg” is like this, because it is so full of ideas, not grand ones, but small insights that help us see the way a movement passes from one dancer to another, or how partnering works, or what a canon feels like, or what a sound looks like when it becomes a movement.
New York City Ballet opened its spring 2022 season with a program comprising two ballets, George Balanchine’s “Serenade” and “Goldberg Variations.” (I caught a performance on April 21.) “Serenade” is beloved, “Goldberg” generally overlooked. It seldom returns to the stage. But perhaps this is why it feels surprising and new each it does return, in a way that “Serenade” does not. Don’t get me wrong. “Serenade” is a marvel; its spell takes hold with its very first image, a lattice-pattern of women, bathed in blue, holding one arm up toward the sky. And the performance I saw on this night, which contained several débuts, was solid. But it has been some time since “Serenade” projected the drama it should. So much of the ballet is about urgency and sweep, but that sweep arises not only from the whoosh of legs but also from the way the dancers use their backs, their upper bodies, and their eyes. Or it should, anyway. Too often, this sense of urgency is merely gestured at, not fully embodied.
Which is not to say there weren’t promising performances. Ashley Hod, débuting in the jump-heavy part known as the “Russian girl,” was fleet and airy, at times creating the illusion of flight. But a more relaxed upper body would allow the movement to breathe more. Miriam Miller, she of the beautiful arabesque line, was lovely, if a bit pallid, as the so-called “Dark Angel” (another début). Sara Mearns, as always, rode the wave of Tchaikovsky’s music with drama and authority. But the two standouts for me were Taylor Stanley in his début as Sara’s partner in the waltz, and Alexa Maxwell in the corps de ballet. Maxwell has a short jumping solo in the opening section of “Serenade.” Her ebullience and ardor, the way the movement seems to spring from an emotional, rather than purely physical, impulse, opens a window into the ballet’s inner world. And Stanley, though not physically well matched with Mearns, brings a level of absorption and attention to detail to his role that makes every moment, every transition, count.
There were yet more débuts in “Goldberg,” but, because the ballet is seldom performed, they stood out less. Near the end, the cast forms one of Robbin’s giant circles, in which the dancers appear to dance for each other, tired but intimately interconnected, happy. After that, they re-organize to form a diagonal, facing the pianist, Susan Walters, who plays on a platform to the left of the stage. She, too, is part of their world.
From beginning to end, the ballet suggests an entry into a separate space, one of listening, experimentation, and musical invention. The theme is established by two dancers (Miriam Miller and Preston Chamblee), who return at the very end; they are formal, courteous, measured, but also relaxed. Their gestures hint at Baroque form, though only slightly. In their first appearance they are dressed in Baroque attire, but when they return they are in rehearsal clothes. The impression is one of stripping down, while retaining the essentials.
Part I mainly features small ensembles. Robbins seems interested in seeing how many ways the group can be subdivided: trios, solos, four vs. three, three vs. six. The measured pace of the music allows him to reveal the ways in which the addition or subtraction of a dancer can change the effect, even the temperature, of a choreographic passage. In one section, Jovani Furlan, fully attentive, courteous, friendly, led a group of dancers in a kind of ballet class, full of tendus and ronds de jambe. Then he quietly walked through the group, watching the dancers up close, until, finally, he simply joined them. Later, he and Daniel Applebaum performed steps in close canon, after which they lay down on the floor, daydreaming as they stretched to the music.
In another variation, Ashley Laracey, with great delicacy, danced a minuet for the pleasure of a group of male dancers, arrayed around her in casual poses, like friends at a garden party. During a quartet in minor key, two men quietly partnered each other, while two women did a sprightly two-step sequence to two notes in the piano. Then they switched parts and the women partnered each other while the men did the two-step sequence. At the end, the four formed a partnering puzzle, in which it was difficult to tell who was assisting whom. (In a later section, a woman (Isabella LaFreniere) partners a man (Adrian Danchig-Waring). None of this is emphatic—Robbins seems to be, simply, trying things out to see how they feel, and what contrasts they create.
In a similarly low-key way, Robbins throws in some Balanchine quotes, some steps from the opening of “Agon,” for four lads who walk jauntily with their backs to the audience, swinging their arms; and then a few bars from the conversation between first and second violin in “Concerto Barocco,” danced here by an all-male ensemble. Wink wink, and if you miss it, that’s fine. Later, when a new group of dancers arrives, the combinations are a bit more formal, with more male-female partnering and lifts, including a wonderful slow-motion pas de deux set to fast music, danced here with great warmth and trust by Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar. The wonderfully clean-dancing Chun Wai Chan—every step pristine and legible—partnered a stylish, newly refined Indiana Woodward. Later, in another pas de deux both polished off some typical bravura show-steps, turns à la seconde for him, fouettés for her.
Throughout, the linking step was the simple act of walking, in all its forms: on flat feet, on demi-pointe, on pointe, with a little hop, with intention, as if lost in a dream. Having dancers simply walk is a favorite device of Robbins’. It’s as if he’s telling us that dancing, after all, is, in its way, simply a heightened form of walking
As well as a form of listening. In “Goldberg,” Robbins created an endless profusion of ways to listen to Bach’s music.