Something to Dance About: Robbins Centennial Kicks off at NYCB

Jerome Robbins in Circus Polka
Spring season is underway at NYCB. After a week of Balanchine and modern repertory (a few highlights: Ratmansky's Pictures at an Exhibition return to the repertoire, the flirty, playful duet between Anthony Huxley and Devin Alberda in the otherwise turgid dance odyssey, Sara Mearns making a radiant debut in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Sterling Hyltin and Tiler Peck leading very different but equally valid approaches as the lead girl in Symphony in Three Movements, Zachary Catazaro making a decent if not spectacular return to Apollo three years after his debut where he dropped the lute the Jerome Robbins' Centennial Celebration kicked off this week. The first program I attended mixed real Robbins' (The Four Seasons, Suite of Dances, and Circus Polka) with two Robbins' tributes: Warren Carlyle's Something to Dance About and Justin Peck's EASY.

First things first: the real Robbins on the program showed what a versatile choreographer he was and his unique talent for "cuteness." I've always thought "cute" was one of the hardest things to pull off in dance. Robbins could pull off "cute" like no other choreographer. From the shivering girls in the "Winter" section of The Four Seasons to the SAB students straightening themselves after the whip is cracked in Circus Polka, Robbins knew what kind of cute worked. How much cuteness to put in, how much to hold off.

de Luz in Suite of Dances, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Four Seasons remains an irresistible crowd-pleaser. I saw two casts: in the first cast some highlights were Indiana Woodward adorable as Winter, and the barnstorming "Fall" in which Tiler Peck basically did her Tiler Peck thing of about a gazillion revolutions on one turn of the ankle and Daniel Ulbricht (Faun) danced as if he had actual springs in his legs. In the second cast my favorites were the ever-lovely Sterling Hyltin floating through the "Spring" section and Roman Mejia as the "Faun" of the Fall section. Mejia is a phenom. Star. Whatever you want to call it. Suite of Dances was coached by the originator Mikhail Baryshikov and is a 12-minute long conversation between a cellist and dancer set to six pieces by Bach. de Luz brought his usual panache and charm to the solo. He's one of the few male dancers charismatic enough to pull off such an understated piece which relies on slight shrugs, jaunty walks, hops, skips, and even somersaults and cartwheels as much as Baryshnikov's famous turns a la seconde. This is a great farewell tour for de Luz, who is retiring in the fall. Dancers rarely retire when they are still on top. De Luz is an exception. And finally Circus Polka was just adorable -- a five minute explosion of joy as the stage crowds with tiny SAB students as circus animals and a Ringmaster (Ask La Cour) cracking the whip. The ballet ended with the students forming the initials "JR." You could hear many proud parents in the audience.

Circus Polka cast curtain call

EASY, photo @ Andrea Mohin
If only Justin Peck had gotten the memo about Cute Control. His ballet EASY is a 9-minute sneaker ballet in which the girls and boys strut, shake, tap, and swing dance to the blaring Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs by Leonard Bernstein. It's one of those works that takes advantage of the company's good looks and affinity for jazzy, Broadway-style dancing but expects those qualities to carry the day. Indiana Woodward and Harrison Coll were two standouts -- such energy! Such swag! Coll took a huge dive into the wings in the ballet's final moments. Very crowd-pleasing. Unfortunately the ballet registers as too much cute, too little substance. As a sneaker ballet it does not have the visceral excitement of Peck's The Times Are Racing. As a tribute to Robbins' and Bernstein it has none of the shifts in mood of, say, Fancy Free (which goes from comic to aggressive to romantic) nor the street grit of West Side Story. It's enjoyable fluff but that's it.

On the Town excerpt from Something to Dance About, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Warren Carlyle's Something to Dance About is a 30-something minute pastiche tribute to some of Robbins' most iconic work for Broadway. There are clips from Peter PanOn the Town, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Billion Dollar Baby, Funny Girl, The King and I, and of course West Side Story. Singer Jessica Vosk occasionally provided vocal accompaniment. Something to Dance About I'd hazard is 80% Robbins 20% Carlyle? Or 70/30? First of all, it's a tribute to the company's versatility that they looked so at home in this style of dance. Not a surprise that so many NYCB dancers have "crossed over" and starred on Broadway. The costumes by Toni-Leslie James were incredible: they were real Broadway-style costumes but with enough minimalist sleekness that is part of the NYCB aesthetic.

Singer Jessica Vosk takes a curtain call with the cast

As might be expected some portions of the ballet come across better than others. For instance "Shall We Dance" (with Tiler Peck as Anna, billowing hoopskirt and all, and Taylor Stanley as the King) loses its impact when taken out of context. In the musical this moment is a sublimated consummation between Anna and the King. When done well it crackles with sexual tension. None of that came across in the clip danced last night. However another excerpt from the very same musical ("Small House of Uncle Thomas") although brief played beautifully even without the "Run Eliza Run" narrative. Indiana Woodward was incredible as "Eliza" in that sequence. She got all the Oriental mannerisms down pat as if she'd been dancing this sort of thing forever. I was also pleasantly surprised that Andrew Veyette has a decent singing voice and did the soft shoe number "All I Need is the Girl" from Gypsy so well.


Wedding Dance from Fiddler, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The best part of Something to Dance About was the Charleston excerpt from Billion Dollar Baby. Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht danced up a storm. Tiler Peck was obviously having the time of her life and the NYCB corps also danced as if they do the Charleston every day. It was a real showstopper. Sara Mearns sashayed and shimmied as the most over the top version of herself in "America" from West Side Story. Hurricane Sara at her finest. Oddly the other sections from West Side Story did not come out as well -- I guess the dancing is too extensive and intense in that musical to fit into a pastiche. Best pleasant surprise: I didn't think the NYCB corps boys could pull off the Wedding Dance from Fiddler on the Roof but they did. At the end of the ballet the dancers stood as Vosk sang "Something Wonderful" and a picture of Robbins (with a rare smile on his face) projected from the background. The audience loved it and the dancers were obviously having fun. It wasn't perfect but only the most churlish and didactic of audience members could dislike it.


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