Jerome Robbins forever!

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday March 28, 2018
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There has not been a more entertaining evening in the Opera House for years than last week's Jerome Robbins show danced by the San Francisco Ballet. A mixed bill with a serious piece, a scandalous, sexy piece, a "Romance of Eastern Europe" pas de deux, and a wonderful skit for three sailors on shore leave and the two girls they hook up with, the program hit every bell.

This year marks the centenary of Robbins' birth as Jerome Rabinowitz, on the very last day of WWI, to Jewish immigrants from the borders of Poland and Russia. An outsider all his life, bisexual mostly gay, he made use of his genius for mimicry as a closeting device, and also gave it rein in his craft, the lyrical theater. He was forced to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee by a threat to reveal his homosexuality, and did name names. I hate to condemn him for this, doubting that I would have done any better.

SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson owes his American career to Robbins, who discovered him in Denmark in the 50s and gave him many great roles over the years, even allowing him to use "his" solo from Dances at a Gathering for the Moscow International Ballet competition, where he won the silver medal, coming in behind Mikhail Baryshnikov, who got the gold.

A Robbins number always worked. Aside from his ballets, he choreographed for a stream of Broadway hits: Gypsy, Peter Pan, The King and I, High-Button Shoes, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, On the Town. After Fiddler, exhausted with commercial theater, he went back to ballet.

Program 5's opener, Opus 19/The Dreamer, was the longest, most serious, and most diaphanous of the ballets. Set to Prokofiev's Violin Concerto, it's shrouded in blue; the corps dancers, half-visible, seem to be floating far above their legs, which barely kiss the floor as they echo the moods, longings, and inchoate fears of the protagonist, Wei Wang. Gleaming in pearl-grey tights, Wang is the only dancer we can really see, and he is astonishingly beautiful. There is a hint of a story, and there's brilliant turbulence in the middle. The ballerina, Mathilde Froustey, was at all times beautiful,and she was with him to the end. But it still ends on a Harlequinesque question: Is this it?

In The Cage (1951), Robbins created a dystopian world of insect-like creatures by stealing moves from Martha Graham, martial arts, Pilates exercises, African dance, and Balanchine's leotard ballets, to show mating rituals in which, at the end of a cat-and-mouse copulation, the female catches the head of the hapless male between her knees and breaks his neck. Every move is astonishing, especially when she stomps his body and it convulses. Each fits in place like parts in a well-made car, to Stravinsky's austerely beautiful Concerto in D for String Orchestra. I saw it twice, with Yuan Yuan Tan incisively angular as the novice on Thursday, and the tiny Maria Kochetkova, dancing huge and ferocious as if from pure instinct, on Friday. Indeed, the novice is newborn, having fallen from between the legs of the Queen (Jennifer Stahl Thurs., Sofiane Sylve Fri., both tremendous) on the first notes of the music, still shrouded in a caul. There are echoes of both Apollo and Giselle in this, though the strongest physical echo is to the Maenads who tear Orpheus limb from limb in Balanchine's ballet by that name. The ballet is over almost before it starts. It's actually 15 minutes, but it feels like no time. There is no fat on this one, it hurtles to its end with one brilliant move after another, all of them exactly telling.

Other Dances, the pas de deux that followed, was created on two Russian ballet stars who defected during the Cold War, "seeking artistic freedom." Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova made their New World careers in New York with American Ballet Theater, and both were superstars, trailing old-world glamour and steeped in Russian melancholy. Other Dances, set to Chopin's nostalgic mazurkas and waltzes, mined the vein of Chopin-inspired dances that Robbins had been making all his life. He transferred it to American dancers, who do not cultivate that kind of glamour. Our ballerina Frances Chung's sense of timing, the finest shades of rhythmic responsiveness to the cadences in the music, made me proud to live in San Francisco, where we have such dancers. Her partner, Angelo Greco, who comes from the great Italian school of spiraling dancing, gave a wonderful account of Baryshnikov's role, with gentle modulation of the pace so his gestures faded away like a vapor trail in the sky.

The finale, Fancy Free (1944), brought the house down. Everyone in it was glorious. Sasha de Sola and Dores Andre, as the two hard-boiled women the three sailors meet, could not have been more detailed in their behavior nor more beautiful in their dancing. They seemed the equals of these guys, able to handle themselves. Andre had one wonderful moment when she made the guys stand down and acknowledge her right to her own space and her own purse, which they'd stolen and played a teasing game of "Catch" with.

Though the ballet belongs to the boys. Thursday's and Friday's performance made a star out of Benjamin Freemantle, who brought a smooth, unending flow of spiraling movement to his solo. Lonnie Weeks was right behind him, with creamy action in his pirouettes, with Hungarian port de bras. The boy's a little affected, but it's so sweet, the gentle camping he brought to the role. Bernstein's music is incisive: clear demarcations of mood, big climaxes to make six dancers seem like 24. Oliver Smith's midcentury set has a bar right out of "Night Hawks." The piece holds together brilliantly, and dancers will be wanting to put this one on 100 years from now.