1969 was a watershed year for Jerome Robbins, he came home to New York City Ballet and he choreographed Dances At a Gathering, which is generally considered one of his best ballets. He was fresh from his success on Broadway and created a plotless ballet, one without drama, one which continues to be an ambiguous and superb work.
Miami City Ballet’s Program 2 is presenting Dances At a Gathering with music by Chopin and Brahms/Handel, a collaboration between Robbins and Twyla Tharp. Each dance is a powerhouse on its own, together they make for a compelling evening
First up was Dances At a Gathering, a piece that when it premiered with the New York City Ballet there was so much discussion about its narrative ( or lack of ) that Robbins wrote a letter to the quarterly Ballet Review which declared in capital letters: THERE ARE NO STORIES TO ANY OF THE DANCES IN “DAAG” THEY ARE NO PLOTS AND NO ROLES. THE DANCERS ARE THEMSELVES DANCING WITH EACH OTHER TO THAT MUSIC IN THAT PLACE.
The piece opens with a solo male dancer facing upstage to a clear sky backdrop. He enters leisurely as if daydreaming or remembering another time in this place. He dances to his own memories. The original dancer was Edward Villella, the Founding Artistic Director of Miami City Ballet. This first memory solo is followed by other dancers entering the open space. They are identified by the colour of their costume. The dancers seem to embrace nature and fill the space with fluid movements. There are never more than six dancers on stage at one time ( except at the end when it increases to 10). The Miami City Ballet dancers create a community on stage They execute Robbins choreography with ease and dexterity. The dancers are themselves, dancing as if coming back to a place they had once known. The steps have a Slavic feeling, with lots of heel-toe and crossed arms, or one arm behind the ear, the other on the hip. At one point the men dance in a straight line, arms across one another’s shoulder. There are gorgeous moments of dancing, women lifted high, legs in attitude. Yet always there is a sense of just moving in an open space, in fact, Robbins had considered naming the piece Dances in Open Air. The space seems to be a place the dancers are coming back to, a place they had once danced in years earlier. Chopin’s music and the dance seem to intertwine with each other. Dances at a Gathering is vast and open, like reading a Walt Whitman poem. Space is almost sacred and it is as if we are watching memories unfold before us.
There is an amazing aspect to Brahms/Handel, it is a powerful rush of movements. Movements which never cease-from the first note to the last. The ballet is set to Johannes Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. The dancers are divided into two groups by the colour of their costumes, which were designed by Oscar de la Renta. The Robbins dancers in blue and the Tharp dancers in green. This is a tug-of-war ballet with dynamic momentum between and amongst the two groups.
There is consistent energy within the piece and a sense of riding a roller-coaster, where the actions dip only to be picked up again. The dancers are in top form here, and there is an intoxicating sense of energy when fusion occurs between the groups. The mixture of styles makes for a piece full of surprises. Robbins came from a background in musical theatre and ballet, while Tharp often uses natural movements, improvisation, modern and ballet technique in her choreography. Her use of wiggles and bumps, which was a hallmark of her style in 1984 when Brahms/Handel premiered still looks fresh on the Miami City Ballet dancers.
Dances at a Gathering and Brahms/Handel were choreographed years apart but there are strong linkages to both pieces. It’s in the energy and intensity of the movements. Dances at Gathering is an afternoon stroll in a place filled with the slow recall of memory, while Brahms/Handel is a collaboration between two choreographers who knew how to have fun and just dance. Both are brilliant, both are unforgettable.