Between 1974 and 1996, Jerome Robbins personally oversaw the staging of twelve of his ballets for the Paris Opera Ballet. Attracted by the dramatic qualities of the dancers and their technical rigor, the American choreographer is said to have considered the POB a second home after the New York City Ballet. Following his death in 1998, the POB continued to add a wide range of Robbins’ ballets to its repertoire, most of which are featured with some regularity. For its fall 2018 season, the POB offers an evening-length program that runs from October 27 to November 14 to mark the centenary of the choreographer’s birth, an event being celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic (this year also happens to be the centenary of the birth of composer Leonard Bernstein, one of Robbins’ most important collaborators). Showcasing the diversity of their Robbins repertoire, the POB’s mixed bill spans multiple decades, beginning with Fancy Free (1944) and incorporating later works from the 1980s and 90s. All pieces are accompanied live by the orchestra of the Paris Opera, conducted by Valery Ovsyanikov.
Fancy Free, which served as inspiration for the musical On the Town, belongs to a bygone era with its three cat-calling sailors on 24-hour furlough in New York City during the Second World War. Today, it is difficult to appreciate the female heckling sections of Fancy Free as humorous, although it is clear that that we are intended to find the navy men charming in their pursuits. While the ballet hasn’t aged well thematically, the French dancers brilliantly carried off the naivety required of them. Their acting skills are worthy of a mid-century Hollywood screwball comedy, a contrast to the serious dramatic flair they’re known for. On November 7, Eve Grinsztajn was particularly engaging and excelled at the jazzy partnering. Viewing Fancy Free allows the public to observe the forward-leaning travelling steps and athletics that were already visible in Robbins’ style as early as the 1940s, an esthetic that reappears throughout the POB program in different contexts and defines the choreographer’s most celebrated works, including West Side Story.
The highlight of the evening was A Suite of Dances performed by Paul Marque. Cellist Sonia Wielder-Atherton took to the stage to accompany the dancer, playing selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello. It’s a pity that this music has become so overused in film and on stage, perhaps depleting some of its power, despite Robbins’ astute musicality. A fifteen-minute solo initially created for Mikhail Baryshinikov in 1994, Robbin’s Suite oscillates between pathos and playfulness, a self-referential nod to the inner world of the dancer and his relationship to music. There is a liberating force in this solo that can only take shape by balancing tension and release, drawing on a wide range of movement sources, from the bravura of batterie to everyday walking in parallel. The dancer even interacts with the cellist, humorously dismissing the music with a wave of both hands as if to say, “No more, I’m done!” Paul Marque’s execution is sumptuous to watch; it is casually virtuosic, with an introspective sensitivity channeled into every step. While Robbins is often erroneously referred to as “academic” in style, this ballet proves yet again that his strength lies in the merging of a classical vocabulary in dialogue with other forms, including jazz and post-modernism.
A Suite of Dances is self-referential, but Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun (1953) is the meta-ballet par excellence set within a dance studio and exploring elements of a dancer’s life, from the narcissism of the mirror to the ephemeral qualities of performing. Robbin’s version loosely follows Nijinsky’s original ballet of 1908 and Stephane Mallarmé’s poem (1876), both based on a fleeting encounter between a faun and a nymph. Danced by Amandine Albisson and Hugo Marchand, the latter was particularly powerful in the erotically-charged conclusion, for which Mallarmé asks, “Did I love a dream?”
Concluding with Glass Pieces (1983), Robbins’ ambitious tribute to the corps de ballet set to selections from Philip Glass’ Glassworks and Akhnaten, the Palais Garnier’s spacious stage was abuzz with color and intricate patterns. Once again, meta-references to dance are present in this overt examination of the corps de ballet. Over forty dancers clad in a range of brightly-colored spandex became a hive mind, working as a collective unit, but not without individual tasks and identities coming to the fore for brief moments of illumination, just as they do within any dance company. At times, this may come across as a chaotic rush hour-inspired trajectory for dancers, recalling the influence of observing urban street life on the choreographer’s work that he referenced during the creation of Fancy Free (as eclectic as the POB mixed bill may appear, it is in fact a carefully constructed program that allows us to make these connections). While abstract, Glass Pieces similarly hones in on the interactions and near collisions of our collective consciousness. Although some of the principal dancers in Glass Pieces struggled with what should have been tightly controlled synchronized movements, the corps rose to the occasion and étoile Laura Hecquet’s ease and expressivity were a treat to watch. The second movement, something of a modern-day Kingdom of the Shades with its repetitive unfolding chain of dancers at the back of the stage, was particularly successful and challenges the viewer to consider their own relationship to the music and how they view the ritualistic repeated movements. Indeed, where and how to look are questions that Glass Pieces brilliantly asks of its viewers.