I can’t remember the first time I saw “Swan Lake” or “Serenade,” but I will never forget the first time I saw Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering.” I was twenty-six and had just flown from California to New York City for the first time in my life. Equally frightening: I had just received a marriage proposal from the man I’d begged, for years, to marry me—and suddenly I wasn’t sure whether I should marry him. I sat smack in the middle of the orchestra section for a New York City Ballet matinee and up went the curtain and out came the man in brown (Damian Woetzel, I was very lucky in my casting). He touched the ground and strolled with his head tilting as though to take us back in his memory. And then the stage was filled with his friends, dancing for one another like real people with distinct personalities, playing games like lambs, pausing in moments of intimacy as though shocked by the seriousness of love.
Finally, after what could have been a lifetime or maybe just five minutes, all the dancers stopped. They looked out over the audiences’ heads (we didn’t exist) to watch something cross the far horizon. I felt my heart in my throat. It was clear, from the way these young people watched the sky, that they knew life would change, that this moment was gone even as it was happening. Innocence was already lost.
And so here is what struck me, last Saturday as I watched San Francisco Ballet’s latest all-Robbins repertory tribute, honoring the centennial of his birth: It is still possible, at every stage of our lives, to have a revelatory experience with Robbins. This is in part because, unless you live in New York or San Francisco or Paris, the opportunity to see his works is not that frequent, and in part because so many of his works do things most ballets don’t do.
Before “Dances at a Gathering,” it hadn’t occurred to me that a ballet could take you inside someone’s memories, and ballet could be about everyday people with small foibles committing tiny Chekhovian exchanges of misunderstood gestures and shrugging reconciliations. And before seeing “Opus 19/The Dreamer” open the all-Robbins program last Saturday, it hadn’t occurred to me that a ballet could take you inside the uncanny sensation of dreaming, without representing any particular dream.
“Opus 19” is not new to San Francisco audiences, who last saw it eight years ago, but it was new to me, and thus freshly bizarre. Consider: Solor, in “La Bayadère,” falls asleep and has a particular opium vision—his dead love multiplied to infinity. But “Opus 19/The Dreamer” is something far stranger: a literal dream with totally abstract, formally-driven content. The lead male in white (originally Mikhail Baryshnikov) reaches out as though sensing the presences behind him—an ensemble of six corps women and six men—but unable to grasp anything. They walk tip-toe on the beat of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto with arms held out like ghosts; the Dreamer makes fists and thrashes his arms across his chest, as though rolling in bed, stuck in his own mind, tortured by intuitions. Later, sunk into the dream, he can see the ensemble fully, and kneels to watch; a beautiful woman emerges, but her presence is as unnerving as Prokofiev’s chromatic scales, and she bourrées behind him as he again reaches for what he cannot see. Even when their partnering picks up fluency in the frantic middle movements the vision can collapse at any second; they stop dead on heavy notes and slump together, bouncing as though the brain’s weird ways control them.
Just as I was fortunate to first see “Dances at a Gathering” with Damian Woetzel as the man in brown, I now count myself lucky to have first seen “Opus 19” with Carlo Di Lanno as the man in white. I saw him twice last Saturday, matinee and evening, and both times his inhabitation of the dreamscape was total. Could a dancer be more perfect for this role? Di Lanno is tall, broad-shouldered yet built like a lynx, and pure of form, but just as importantly in this case he is a deeply inward dancer whose confident self-absorption creates an impression of complex psychology. His face, with that prominent Italian nose and those large eyes that remind me of Pompeian portraiture, never played to the audience yet became genuinely distressed as the ensemble evaded him. The lead woman in the evening was Siren-esque Dores Andre, and I slightly preferred their chemistry; Sarah Van Patten in the matinee did not have much personal connection with Di Lanno but certainly, in her constant willingness to risk ungainly épaulement, made the movement weirder.
Another iconic Robbins’ ballet I had never seen: “The Cage,” last danced in San Francisco nineteen years ago. The photos in dance history textbooks of original star Nora Kaye with her black cropped hair and white leotard marked with squiggles suggesting a spider’s exoskeleton are fascinating; this short ballet itself (just 15 minutes, the length of Stravinsky’s Concerto in D) is less potent. Martha Graham was in the air back when this premiered in 1951, one figures. But it was delicious to see Sofiane Sylve as the Queen of this man-killing insect society. Maria Kochetkova as the newly-born insect who must learn to murder took exciting risks falling from arabesque into Brylcreemed Steven Morse’s arms; at the matinee, soloist Lauren Strongin emphasized the turned-in contortions (and perfected the creepy inner-thigh rubbing tick). Ludmila Bizalion as the Queen in that performance continued to prove herself the corps breakout of the year, projecting power with every forced arch lunge. Someone give this woman a promotion, quick.
A follow-on, seven years later, from “Dances at a Gathering,” Robbins made “Other Dances” to yet more Chopin as a showcase for Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova at the height of defection-frenzy glamour; San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson later danced it frequently with Patricia McBride, and I wish dearly I could see video of them. I’m sorry to report the work fell a little flat with Frances Chung opposite dashing Angelo Greco, even with Greco turning in Cuisinart-worthy turns and nailing the little joke where he loses his spot. You feel guilty, not liking Chung; she is always technical perfection, always musical, and in some ways physiologically dazzling (the articulation of her toe box at the break of demi-pointe!)—and yet. What her performance needed was spontaneity, or so I thought after catching Sasha De Sola opposite Wei Wang in the evening. De Sola was lavish in her backbends, decisive with her eyes, and then at the very last moment, when she flew onto Wang’s shoulder, she saw that her skirt was going to cover his face and whisked it away, playing this split-second decision to the audience and winning our delight.
The program closed with “Fancy Free,” seen frequently here (and of course a staple at American Ballet Theatre, where Robbins made his choreographic breakthrough by collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on it in 1944). It’s interesting to revisit this sweet comedy of sailors on shore-leave in this “#MeToo” moment—the little game of horny guys stealing the woman’s purse and tossing it back and forth on the street is not so cute when you give credence to her real duress. But all credit to Robbins for studying human behavior carefully and evoking it faithfully; “Fancy Free” is like watching a pride of young lions trying to mate out on the safari. The vulnerability of the men in their women-wooing solos never fails to move me. Mile-tall, doe-eyed Ulrik Birkkjaer was touching as the hapless ringleader. I’ve always had a special soft spot for the Latin-inspired little cha-cha danced by the middle-height man; corps member John-Paul Simoens was so puppy-like in the role you wanted to rub his ears. James Sofranko, about to leave SF Ballet to become artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet, left his mark on the spunky short-man role. I wish I could have stayed for the evening cast, which included Esteban Hernandez, a big sweetie and a vigorous jumper, perfect for the Robbins rep.
But it’s Carlo Di Lanno as the Dreamer who now haunts my dreams, and makes me rethink, with a power I can only hope some of the works in next month’s massive “Unbound” festival of commissions might match, what ballet can do. Thank you, Helgi Tomasson, for giving San Franciscans a chance to be surprised by Robbins again.