Asked to introduce herself, Tobi Tobias said, “My writing is my ‘letter to the world.'” Tobi Tobias, an internationally known dance writer, is the New York dance critic for Bloomberg News. She also writes about dance in New York for Voice of Dance. Much of her work appeared in Dance magazine (where she also edited the criticism for nearly a decade) and in New York magazine (where she served as the journal’s dance critic for 22 years). She has also reviewed dance regularly for the Village Voice and written feature stories for the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times. Her involvement with dance has extended to major oral history projects as well as writing for the public television series Dance in America and Live from Lincoln Center. In 1992, she was awarded a Danish knighthood in recognition of her extensive writing and oral history project on the Royal Danish Ballet and its Bournonville tradition.
By TOBI TOBIAS © VoiceofDance.com 2008
2008 marks the 90th anniversary of Jerome Robbins’s birth and the 10th year since his death. Since he remains the second most important choreographer the New York City Ballet has had, it’s no wonder that this year’s Workshop Performances of the School of American Ballet (SAB), the company’s prestigious academy, should feature his dances. Surprisingly, though, the repertory announced in advance for this program’s three performances (same works, different casts) was ill-conceived. Of its four ballets, half were fixated on children. Circus Polka, a Robbins bagatelle, is set to a brief score that Stravinsky originally agreed to compose for Balanchine when that choreographer was creating an eight-minute dance for the Ringling Brothers’ elephants. (The composer facetiously agreed to take on the job only if the pachyderms were very young.) In 1972, Robbins reconceived the blithe project for the City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival as a frolic for 48 SAB girls, most of them under the age of puberty.
Because of the children’s no-nonsense training—for lightness, speed, and clarity—the piece isn’t cloying, but it can’t avoid being cute. The single adult participant is a male Ringmaster who directs the proceedings with a lightly wielded whip. At the parent company, the role has been played with a twinkle in his eye by Robbins, who originated it, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others. On this occasion we had Jock Soto, now an SAB instructor after a stellar career with the City Ballet, who gave it both energy and irony. Needless to say, the little girls were fleet-footed and filled with delight. (Soto’s Interlude, a prove-your-mettle showcase for the male teenagers he trains, was a last-minute addition to the program.)
Robbins’s Fanfare, a more ambitious ballet on the bill, could only appeal to children and I’m not sure one can even count on that anymore. It’s a visualization of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, meant, as the composer himself wrote, to “edify and entertain.” The instruments are presented in their groups (winds, strings, horns, and so forth), then separately. The choreography Robbins created for the three men representing the percussion section is amusing, although its timing has lost its casual ease over the years, and the Harp has a simple but lovely solo. A deliberately pompous Major Domo emcees the proceedings, which conclude in the instruments’ dancing a fugue on a Purcell theme. Barely adolescent, I saw this ballet at its 1952 premiere and even then objected to its clever, arch quality. Even then, I knew that the huge appliqués emblazoning the chests of the dancers so that there could be no mistaking what instrument they represented was not what ignited my imagination at the New York City Ballet and drew me to the company like a moth to the flame.
While the dancers, under Susan Pilarre’s direction, surely did their best, the present production looked too mechanical, like a Broadway musical that had been running forever. Had he been around to rehearse it himself, Robbins, who did some of his best work for Broadway, would no doubt have checked in to make the proceedings look more spontaneous. As it now stands, it seems to be one of those diversions that wrong-headed adults deem “good enough for kids.”
Moreover, while there are lots of young children in the audience at Workshop, especially at the matinee—siblings, cousins, and friends of the performers—the event has never been intended as child-oriented entertainment. Though a bit of dancing for the younger pupils is sometimes included to indicate that a ballet education must start young and be exigent, Workshop is at heart a demonstration of the pre-professional gifts and accomplishments of the academy’s advanced students, which are considerable. SAB ranks with the schools of the Kirov, Bolshoi, Paris Opera, and Royal ballets as the world’s most revered training grounds for classical dancing.
Luckily, the balance of the program had more substance. Robbins choreographed the pure, abstract 2 & 3 Part Inventions for the Workshop Performances of 1994. This dance for eight was then taken into the City Ballet’s repertoire and is now, for the first time, back at its birthplace. Actually it belongs here, performed by students, since it is most pleasurable seen an exercise for innocents. In this it echoes the score—piano exercises Bach devised for one of his young sons.
There’s something of the schoolroom in the choreography, which takes the individual steps an advanced student has been perfecting for some eight years and, as if through metamorphosis, turns them into dancing. The performers of this piece—staged by Elyse Borne, assisted by Katrina Killian, both SAB and City Ballet alumnae—moved with a graciousness, fluency, and technical prowess you’d hardly expect from aspirants of their tender age. They also have a more than nascent command of style and remarkable stage presence. I was especially taken by Lauren Lovette, who headed the evening cast on May 31 (I also saw the matinee). She has the grave dignity of a princess without being high and mighty about it.
George Balanchine, the raison d’être of SAB and the City Ballet, was represented by his 1941 Concerto Barocco, set to Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. It was by far the outstanding choreographic offering on the program. However, despite Suki Schorer’s typically scrupulous staging, the production felt a little tame at the matinee and somewhat mistaken in tone in the evening—albeit very beautiful on both occasions.
Though the principal women in the evening cast, Sara Adams and Kristen Segin, had more vitality than the delicate, precise Megan Johnson and the lush Lydia Wellington, who danced in the afternoon, they offered an excess of “personality,” as if the ballet were not a sublime abstraction but about them. To correct this, they might begin by not smiling so much—or at all. Balanchine referred to dancers as angelic messengers, thus essentially without ego. Such divine creatures have no need to seduce the onlooker with charm
Harrison Farthest right Way to go Harrison..