So far, the Jerome Robbins festival at New York City Ballet has shown us Robbins the storyteller (as in Fancy Free) and the experimentalist (as in Goldberg Variations). Program 4 has revealed yet another facet: Robbins the master of style.
Somehow it is fitting that this program should be set mostly to French music, ranging from Debussy’s Impressionist L’Après-midi d’un faune to Ravel’s jazz-inflected Concerto in G Major. French music brought out a certain sensuality in Robbins, a focus on the body and its capacity for lilt and legato. In G Major, set to a Ravel piano concerto, is like an extended summer reverie; Afternoon of a Faun, a fantasy set in a ballet studio; Antique Epigraphs, an archaic dream inspired by Roman statuary. These are delicate ballets one doesn’t want to see too often; the illusions they create can quickly become stale. But what pleasure to see them after a long hiatus, particularly with a well-chosen cast.
It was a good night for Afternoon of a Faun, in particular. Chase Finlay, débuting in the role of the young dancer sensually lolling about a ballet studio, brought back the eroticism this ballet often lacks. Finlay can appear self-absorbed, but that’s just what this ballet needs. A barechested dancer stretches, naps, and stares at himself in the mirror. (We, the audience, are the mirror.) A young woman enters the studio, interrupting his daydreaming. The two experience a moment of attraction, mostly expressed through the mirror. He kisses her cheek, and she skitters off, on pointe. It’s a fantasy-version of what happens in a ballet studio. And also a riff on the storyline of the original Afternoon of a Faun, by Nijinsky, in which an actual faun is interrupted mid-nap by a group of nymphs. Often the ballet fades into triteness, but here, with the paring of Chase Finlay and Sterling Hyltin, the story came alive. Hyltin, who has danced it many times, seemed to rediscover it through Finlay’s eyes and touch.
Antique Epigraphs, too, easily congeals into prettiness, but not here. Eight women in long, gauzy tunics glide slowly, floatingly, across a bare stage. As in so many Robbins ballets, walking is a central theme. They settle into graceful groupings as one, and then another, breaks into a soliloquy. The inspiration, at least according to the Robbins lore, was a group of bronze danaids from the Villa dei Papiri, housed at the Archeological Museum in Naples. But those statues are monumental and imposing, with enamel eyes that seem to follow you; Robbins’ danaids, in contrast, are soft and feminine. Only the first, a priestess type, preserves a hint of their severity. Savannah Lowery, who is likely the tallest most imposing dancer in the company, danced its crouching, rocking steps full out, holding out one hand as if revealing a prophecy.
After that, the dances become flowing and soft. Women partner each other in balances; they form circles, like nymphs on a Greek amphora; they whirl. Unity Phelan, with her impressive flexibility, and Ashley Laracey, a dancer with an aura of inwardness and mystery, made much of the limpid lines and harmonies in Debussy’s Six Epigraphes Antiques and Syrinx. Then, slowly, the group came together for the quietly astonishing ending, set to a flute melody: all eight dancers line up, place a hand on each other’s shoulder, step to the side, twist around, and face forward, like an ancient frieze.
The program ended on a comic note, with a strong performance of The Concert; all the jokes worked, nothing seemed too over the top. Lauren Lovette is a born comedienne, her comic timing only amplified by her movie-star looks. The only slightly off-note of the evening, in fact, was the opener, In G Major. This sunny ballet hinges on a sultry pas de deux, as opulent and slow as a long, hot summer romance. Maria Kowroski was mis-cast here; she has grandeur, but lacks romance. Throughout the pas de deux, she looked almost sad. The opulence that should pervade every move was missing.
It’s still a glorious pas de deux, filled with passages in which the two dancers simply walk, toward, away, and past each other. They exist within their summer idyll, almost as if time had stopped. But the idyll can and should be more idyllic, the summer warmer, the languor more languid. It’s love, after all.