Russian Roots

The New York City Ballet on Friday, May 9.

The choreography in the Russian Roots program ranges from the primly beautiful to the slightly jazzy to the quasi-tribal, which is why it’s such a trip that they’re all choreographed by the same man: Jerome Robbins, whose Russian heritage the title references. The pieces are quite different in mood and texture, but as my dad pointed out afterword, knowing they come from the same person gives one license to the similarities among them, the way modern touches turn up in the classic “Andantino” and traditional steps create a foundation for the brutal “Les Noces.”

That makes sense, of course, though “Les Noces” still requires a minute or two of acclimation after the works that precede it. “Andantino,” a simple pas de deux, is just so pretty and romantic, and “Piano Pieces” so cute and fun. Both use music by the always accessible Tchaikovsky, and the languid middle movement of a piano concerto (the accompaniment for “Andantino”) is a particularly good bet for dance: lush and long-lined and beautiful. To my surprise, though, I preferred the bonbon-like “Piano Pieces.” I’m not overly fond of Tchaikovsky’s incidental piano music (kind of second-tier Schumann), but the sheer variety provides a bountiful potpourri for pas de deux and ensembles and solos, including a couple of delightfully flashy male solos, executed with seemingly effortless cheer by Antonio Carmena.

My favorite work of the evening, though, was “Opus 19/The Dreamer,” set to Prokofiev’s energetically expressive Violin Concerto in D Major. (I adore Prokofiev.) Gonzalo Garcia and Wendy Whelan are the featured performers—the dreamer and dream, I suppose?—and they make for a compelling pair: self-possessed and dramatic and eloquent in their movements. (Whelan could never be a wispy dream.)

The program concludes with “Les Noces,” a “dance-cantata” about a traditional Russian peasant wedding, composed by Igor Stravinsky for the Ballet Russes and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. I’ve never seen Nijinska’s version, but Robbins’ version is … odd. You can see elements of his Fiddler on the Roof choreography, which is unsettling in a much bleaker vision of marriage: no joyful mazel tovs here. According to the New York Times critic, Robbins’ version is more sentimental than Nijinska’s, which makes me madly curious to see the original considering that I found Robbins’ vision exceedingly creepy, what with the keening women, the ritualistic binding of the bride, and the matchmaker and celebrants physically pushing a terrified, resistant couple together.

The dance was interesting, but looking back, it’s not so much the choreography and the music that I remember as that horrific wedding. Especially in light of news this past week, it makes me so grateful that our concept of marriage has evolved. For millennia, marriage was a way to breed heirs, to trade children (and especially girl-children) like chattel, and to balance and build sociopolitical power. The notion of marriage as a partnership between two adults based on mutual love and desire and respect—that’s relatively new. So yes, of course the definition of marriage has changed—and that’s something I celebrate with all my heart.

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