Robbins: Ballet & Broadway Program Notes

by Cheryl A. Ossola

Taras Domitro and Maria Kochetkova in Robbins' Opus 19/The Dreamer // © Erik Tomasson

Opus 19/The Dreamer

In Opus 19/The Dreamer, choreographer Jerome Robbins conveys a dream state—the fleeting moments of comprehension, obscured reality, loss of control. Robbins, according to his biographers, perpetually searched for fulfillment and kept journals of his dreams. Knowing that makes it impossible to watch this ballet, which premiered in 1979, without thinking that the man at its center is,  at least in a distant way, Robbins himself.

The ballet’s two-sided title reflects both its music, Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Opus 19, and its subject—a man grasping for something that seems beyond his reach. The dual title is unusual, and according to Lindsay Fischer, who staged Opus 19/The Dreamer at San Francisco Ballet, the idea was to point out “that this was not a typical New York City Ballet abstract work.” George Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet, often named his works for the music they were set to, which is  “so bare bones,” Fischer says. “I  think Robbins wanted to make a point—this is not bare bones. It’s not actually an abstract ballet.”

Which raises the question—what is The Dreamer dreaming about? Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson,  who danced the role at New York City Ballet, thinks the answer is “finding one’s place in the society or the environment you’re in. Jerry [Robbins] didn’t always explain himself verbally very much,” he says. “He showed you what he wanted and then he would create that with you.”

Fischer thinks of The Dreamer as an immigrant searching for a better life. After all, Robbins was the child of immigrants; he made this ballet on an immigrant (Mikhail Baryshnikov); and an immigrant wrote the music. And, as Robbins often did, he inflects the choreography with Eastern European-inspired folk dance. At the beginning of the ballet, The Dreamer “reaches out into space, touches the earth, reaches across his body around the level of his heart, reaches out into space again, reaches to the heavens, to God, to faith,” Fischer says. “It’s a constant reference between self and external.”

The Dreamer’s world looks like a state of foggy semi-consciousness, with shadowy figures and a woman who comes and goes the way we slip in and out of our dreams. Blue-toned lighting and costumes—except for The Dreamer, who appears both physically and emotionally stripped—convey a sense of nocturnal mystery. To help the dancers understand the world they’re in, Fischer uses imagery and vivid descriptions in teaching the steps. At one point the principal man should use his back so his arm curves “like the arc of the sun,” he says. Commenting on the principal woman’s zigzag walks, he says, “This is gorgeous articulation—don’t do it! Everything should have Vaseline on it.”

The corps de ballet men should move with manic energy, Fischer says, “like when you’re pushing your body farther than it can go and you go into hyperconsciousness.”

Everyone in Opus 19/The Dreamer is searching, and because of that, the dancers need to understand that the ballet is about “the power of dreams, the power of intent,” Fischer says. “The ballet works when everyone acknowledges how much their own dreams have motivated them and how much of their lives they have chosen to spend searching for an ideal. Not every ballet requires utter vulnerability and introspection, where you say to yourself, ‘This ballet is about my life.’”

Opus 19/The Dreamer does. We see the dream, but only the dancers know what happens when The Dreamer opens his eyes.

The Cage

SF Ballet rehearsing Robbins’ The Cage // © Erik Tomasson

It’s been 19 years since Jerome Robbins’ The Cage last invaded the War Memorial Opera House stage, and 67 years since its premiere shocked audiences. It remains, as Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson puts it, a strong, intense work. And it’s unlike most of Robbins’ ballets, which “tend to be soft, beautiful, with inventive lifts,” Tomasson says. “Like Stravinsky was for [George] Balanchine, Chopin was for Robbins—Dances at a Gathering, in that genre of things. The Cage is very dramatic.”

The premise is simple: the Novice is born into a nest of female, insect-like creatures, and very soon she discovers that male intruders are to be dispensed with. The speed and brutality of the kills still send shivers through audiences today, though the movement is no longer considered radical for ballet. But it remains fascinating, and to get it right, says Jean-Pierre Frohlich, a stager with the Robbins Rights Trust, the women “have to forget they’re ballet dancers, even though they’re in pointe shoes. It’s not about looking pretty; they’re supposed to look like creatures, not human.” They arch their backs to the breaking point, open their mouths wide enough to dislocate their jaws, crouch, scurry, and groom themselves, rubbing one arm atop the other or their wrists on their hips.

The Cage sprints by in the fewer than 15 minutes it takes to play the score—Stravinsky’s energetic Concerto in D for String Orchestra, “Basler,” written in 1946. “What’s amazing to me,” Frohlich says, “is you’d think the music was written for this ballet, and it wasn’t. Jerry came up with this concept for this music, which shows what a theatrical mind he had.” Frohlich often comments on Robbins’ keen observational skills, which fuel many of the ideas and movements in his ballets. For example, he made The Cage for Nora Kaye, a New York City Ballet principal dancer whose cropped hair, drenched after a shower, inspired the Novice’s short, sleek hairstyle. It makes the Novice look childlike—she is a newborn, after all—and sets her apart from the others, who have fright-wig hair.

For ballet aficionados, it’s hard to ignore the parallels between The Cage and Giselle. Just as Giselle is destined to become a Wili, the Novice must learn the ways of her tribe. Myrtha whips off Giselle’s veil; the Queen removes the Novice’s shroud. Giselle loves her prince, destined for death; the Novice has a tryst with a doomed intruder. Robbins never mentioned the similarities, but Frohlich sees them. After all, he says, Robbins was a storyteller, steeped in the story ballets he danced at American Ballet Theatre. (Fun fact: Robbins first envisioned the women as Amazons and equipped them with swords and shields in early rehearsals.)

Despite the parallels, in terms of dancing, The Cage couldn’t be more different from Giselle. The dancers need strength, elasticity, and coordination, Frohlich says, but a key part of learning this ballet is assimilating the body language. For example, “when [the Novice] turns her head, after she kills her first victim, she realizes who she is going to be,” he explains. Standing over the intruder’s body, she’s like a cat toying with a mouse. By the way she turns her head, she conveys that she’s beginning to understand, and accept, what she is.

Community is a dominant theme in many of Robbins’ ballets, and The Cage is no exception. Perhaps, though, it’s also about identity and accepting who we are.

Other Dances

At first glance, Other Dances doesn’t look like a showcase for two ballet megastars. But as it draws you in with its intimacy and subtle virtuosity, you begin to note the magic that choreographer Jerome Robbins infused into roughly 18 minutes of ballet perfection. First performed in 1976, Other Dances showed off its two dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, simply but effectively. The ballet’s virtuosity is in its musicality, interaction, and simplicity.

The ballet quickly became a showcase for exquisite dancers, including Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer. “We loved dancing it,” he says about his frequent partner at New York City Ballet, Patricia McBride. “We danced it a lot.” A framed photograph in his office—of the two of them in performance, Tomasson airborne and McBride watching, delighted—reveals his fondness for this ballet.

Set to Chopin like Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering (1969) and In the Night (1970), Other Dances is simply that: other dances to Chopin, this time mazurkas and waltzes. The ballet begins simply—a couple enters, strolling; they clasp hands and, as an onstage pianist begins to play, they dance. Two pas de deux—one refined, one pull-out-the-stops—bracket a series of alternating solos, two for each of them. Intimate and exuberant at the same time, the ballet has folk-dance steps, dynamic leaps, and rapid-fire footwork, demanding everything its two performers can give. Through dance, and in small, personal moments, Robbins shows us who these people are—the woman moves toward the onstage pianist as if to thank him but can’t stop dancing for long; the man is taken aback—and then amused—when he flubs a turn. And threading throughout the piece is an undercurrent of love, of the couple for each other, and for dance.

In rehearsals, former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Isabelle Guérin, a stager of Robbins’ ballets, focuses on technique and nuance, generating a constant stream of corrections for the dancers. “Feet! Feet! Feel your metatarsals!” she urges them. She talks about how to present the foot, how to lift and unfold the leg, how to keep the arms simple and the face relaxed. As the dancers do what she asks, she asks for more—more sparkle, more confidence. “It’s too careful,” she tells the women, referring to a partnered turn. “You have to trust your partner—it’s his problem.” Talk of breath, of control and freedom, of what each moment requires fills the rehearsal time.

Guérin’s husband, Jean-Pierre Frohlich, also a Robbins stager, says that Robbins always looked for “a certain quality, or sometimes a certain look,” but that it’s not true, as some people have said, that he wanted people to dance like whoever performed a ballet’s premiere. “He wanted the idea of the ballet to be there, but if someone performed a different movement and it still worked for the ballet, he didn’t care,” Frohlich says.

That makes sense for a choreographer who could captivate an audience simply by putting two eloquent dancers on a stage with a grand piano and an equally grand pianist. As New York City Ballet co-founder George Balanchine liked to say, if you put a man and a woman together, you’ve got a story. Other Dances is a story about two dancers, about music, and about possibility.

Fancy Free

SF Ballet in Robbins' Fancy Free // © Erik Tomasson

With Fancy Free, Jerome Robbins launched himself as a choreographer, inspired the Broadway musical On the Town, and began a long-term collaboration with composer Leonard Bernstein. Although Robbins might not have expected the overwhelming response Fancy Free would bring, his potential was clear to one already-famous choreographer—on opening night, Antony Tudor sent Robbins a card that said, “I have a nervous presentiment that the choreographic genius of our age may be discovered tonight.”

Robbins was dancing with American Ballet Theatre in 1943 when he came up with the sailors-on-leave concept for Fancy Free. According to Deborah Jowitt, author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, he got the idea from two paintings, The Fleet’s In and Shore Leave, by Paul Cadmus. (The ballet’s working title was Shore Leave.) In search of music for his ballet, he approached the young Bernstein, and so began their decades-long collaboration. And on April 18, 1944, Fancy Free became a hit.

Vivid characters and a simple story give the ballet its charm. Three sailors on leave during World War II are out to have a good time in New York City—and that means women. They find only two, of course, and the ensuing competition for romantic success leads to a dance-off. One by one, the men try to impress the women with solos—bravura, sweet, and sexy—that reflect the personalities of the three original dancers (Harold Lang, John Kriza, and Robbins himself).

The ballet is really a play, says stager and former New York City Ballet dancer Jean-Pierre Frohlich, who danced Sailor #1 for years and has set Fancy Free on San Francisco Ballet several times. Consequently, doing it well requires more than great dancing. The first mandate, he says, is to understand that the ballet is a period piece. The second is characterization. Robbins insisted that the dancers develop histories for their characters, says Frohlich: “who slept on the top bunk, where you are from, so that the minute you’re on that stage, the audience sees the personalities.” The sailors have never been to New York, he says. “They’ve heard so much about the ladies and they’ve never seen tall buildings like this. Plus they are a bit cocky because they’re sailors, and they think they’re invincible.” The men have rituals: in each port they go to a bar, play a rigged game (similar to rock/paper/scissors) to choose who will pay, and have a toss-the-gum-wrapper contest.

Frohlich starts rehearsals with the men’s solos because that’s how the dancers learn who their characters are, he says. To give a terrific performance, they must believe who they are—and be in the moment, responding to one another. Sometimes, in rehearsals, Robbins “would go to a dancer and change the choreography and not tell the other dancer,” Frohlich says. “He used to say, ‘Play the scene—play what’s going on.’” That kind of spontaneity is essential when timing is critical, as it is in this ballet. Each bit of stage business is cued off the music, and jumping the gun means that somebody else’s action becomes less visible. Audiences should have no doubt about exactly where to look when.

In rehearsals Frohlich seems to bring Robbins back to life, acting out each part as his mentor did and using the words he remembers from long hours in the studio. “Dancers always feel special doing a Robbins piece,” he says. “Maybe it’s because we’re all in this together. Jerry used to say, ‘We’re all in the studio; let’s try to make something work.’ It was a family atmosphere in many ways.”