Balanchine and Robbins: Masters at Work

The New York City Ballet on Saturday, February 10.

Dybbuk premiered in 1974 and failed to earn a prominent place in the City Ballet’s repertory. Looking at its pedigree—music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins—I didn’t understand how that had happened, but having seen the 2007 revival, I do. Dybbuk is slack and distant and unabsorbing. It’s just not that good.

Inspired by Jewish folklore about a restless spirit that possesses the living, the short ballet has a good deal of wasted potential. Listening to the score, for example, I couldn’t help but wonder how Bernstein had misplaced his gift for melody. Even if hadn’t wanted to use preexisting folk tunes, the contours and harmonies of folk music surely would have offered fertile ground for composition.

Instead the music lives down to many of the worst clichés of modernist music: it is repetitive and harsh and often aggressively untuneful. That sort of texture has its place—the driving, heavy rhythms work well during the depictions of invocation and exorcism—but why didn’t Bernstein create something gentle and wistful for, say, the dream pas de deux? He lightens the orchestration, but he never makes the instruments sing.

Robbins’ choreography seems similarly uninspired and flat, as if he had thrown in a few gestures and steps from his Fiddler on the Roof choreography without ever figuring out how he wanted Dybbuk the fit together. Some of the dancers’ apparent tentativeness with the unfamiliar ballet didn’t help.

The one sequence that truly caught my attention was the possession pas de deux. Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millepied danced together tightly, almost as one, and as both wore long, cream-colored shifts, their limbs blended together. The effect was eerie, and the dancing lithe and magical, if not particularly passionate. But the dance—and the ballet itself—soon ended abruptly, cutting the spell short.

The program’s other two ballets, Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Serenade with music by Tchaikovsky, were abstract works choreographed by George Balanchine. Balanchine’s neoclassic aesthetic meshes surprisingly well with Tchaikovsky’s lush romanticism, giving Serenade an almost mystical quality. Wearing long chiffon skirts under a cool blue light, the ballerinas dance with graceful loveliness, not in service of any story we can fathom but seemingly with a purpose all their own.

Stravinsky Violin Concerto was the more interesting, though. For the most part, Stravinsky abandoned the folk themes and primitivist elements of his early works when he entered his neoclassic period in the 1920s, yet Balanchine, a fellow neoclassicist, uncovered traces of that earlier style in the composer’s 1931 violin concerto. His choreography highlights those traces with playful nods at traditional folk dance. I sometimes find Balanchine’s ballets rather stark (the costumes—simple black and white practice attire—certainly led me to expect that from Violin Concerto), but the grace notes of blithe folk dance in this work help give it a congenial charm.

Frankly I had expected that sort of elegant accessibility from Dybbuk, for I usually think of Robbins and Bernstein as more easily approachable than Balanchine and Stravinsky. Experiencing the opposite of that surprised me. If nothing else, the New York City Ballet’s Balanchine and Robbins program taught me that I need to be much more careful about stereotyping.

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