The Cage, Jerome Robbins’ striking ballet about a ferocious group of female insects who murder their male prey, was (not surprisingly) controversial when it premiered in 1951. To soothe his critics, Robbins likened his work to a modern retelling of Act 2 of Giselle, in which ghostly spirits of young women deceived by the men they loved compel men to dance until death. The likenesses to Giselle are subtle (look for the veil the Novice wears when she enters or the rolling of the dead male’s body offstage, similar to the way Hilarion is dispatched in Giselle).
Robbins created a challenging lead role—the Novice—who we watch transform, starting as a wobbling adolescent and swiftly mastering the skills needed to survive. Robbins created the role on his ex-fiancée Nora Kaye to capitalize on her gift for dramatic flair. Kaye’s performance garnered rave reviews from both critics and colleagues: “God what an artist,” composer Leonard Bernstein wrote her after its premiere, admiring her “beautiful way of conveying horror.”
Almost 70 years after it premiered—and 20 years after its SF Ballet premiere in 1998—audiences still marvel at dancers’ uncanny ability to suggest the movement of an insect through the crouch of a body or the thrust of an arm.