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Robbins in Love With Chopin: "No Stories" By Robert Greskovic

Robert Greskovic highlights the 49th anniversary of the premiere of the ballet Dances at a Gathering, and the intricate details of its construction which lend to its timelessness.  Robert was a 2017-2018 Dance Division Research Fellow focusing on Jerome Robbins and specifically, Dances at a Gathering.  In addition, Robert is a freelance writer, writing specifically about dance since 1972.  He writes about dance for The Wall Street Journal.  He is the author of Ballet 101, A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet (Hyperion)

May flowers, we're told, are brought out by April showers. May of 1969 marked the premiere showings of Dances at a Gathering, Jerome Robbins' now internationally famous dance suite to Chopin piano music at New York City Ballet. I say showings as there were two initial appearances of the hour-long, 10-dancer ballet; one on May 9, given as a preview and another on May 22, for an official world premiere.

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New York City Ballet rehearsal of "Dances at a Gathering" with John Prinz, Edward Villella, Anthony Blum, Sara Leland and Patricia McBride, choreography by Jerome Robbins 

I am reminded of a "May flowers" image here as the ballet approaches its 49th anniversary this month, in the wake of the time I spent as a Jerome Robbins Dance Research Fellow, which led me to the rich holdings in the archives about Robbins and his works. There I was somewhat surprised to find an apt "flower power" aspect to the background of Dances at a Gathering. The much-admired ballet was seen, it long seemed to me, having watched the ballet since 1969, as a purely lyrical, classical showcase for individually distinct dancers. Over the years of the ballet's history resonances more limpid and light than somewhat specific and particular arose. While Robbins was consistently reticent about verbalizing and backgrounding his dances, the records show that at times he opened up more readily. A 1976 sound-recording, for example, has the choreographer noting, six years into the life of his widely acclaimed ballet, how much "love," a key mantra of the "flower power" counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Robbins felt at the time of its creation. He was then turning fifty while working with the music of Chopin and the dancers of New York City Ballet.

The choreographer's handwritten notes toy with titles for his ballet, which he made piecemeal and which marked his return to NYCB after a hiatus of 13 years. A good number indicate a sense of "flower children" and their "power" alongside almost clinical names that often appealed to him. Thus, in Robbins' hand one can read, alongside such plain options as "Dances: Chopin" or "Dances to Chopin," and "12 Dances," "16 Dances," "Moments," "Relations," Atmospheres," "Currents," "A Suite of Dances," "Chopin," others in more Sixties lingo, like "Love," "Couples," "Les Amants," "Dances for Love," "Love in," "Love:Chopin:Some Dances," "Loves," as well as "Sevol" - "loves" spelt backwards. "Dances at a Gathering," the final title apparently given to Robbins by Daniel Stern, a psychiatrist and close friend of the choreographer's, is also found on one of these lists, so perhaps the choreographer wrote it down having heard Stern's suggestion, or once running it by his trusted friend, he went with it in the end.

Regardless, Dances, the often-shorthand version of the full title in the parlance of those familiar with and fond of the ballet, likely stands prominently on the list of favorite Robbins' ballets wherever the work is shown. (four stagings are on deck for this centenary year.) The plain language of the final title fortifies Robbins in his response to any number of more fanciful identifications with its 18 individual numbers - 8 mazurkas, 5 waltzes, 3 etudes, 1 scherzo and 1 nocturne. Arguably the most amusingly stated resistance Robbins enunciated to catchy nicknames attached almost as gospel to his ballet's individual sections, such as "Mistress of the House," "Wind Waltz," "Big dog, little dog," "Giggle Dance," and "snapshots," came in his terse, telegram-style letter to Ballet Review (Vol. 4 No. 2, 1972): "THERE ARE NO STORIES TO ANY OF THE DANCES IN 'DANCES AT A GATHERING' THERE ARE NO PLOTS AND NO ROLES. THE DANCERS ARE THEMSELVES DANCING WITH EACH OTHER TO THAT MUSIC IN THAT SPACE" (all caps and underscoring are Robbins' own). A rough draft of this statement among his papers is even more specific as it decries the notions of a "lady of the maner[sic], wind, dogs, giggles and photos."

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New York City Ballet production of "Dances at a Gathering" with Kay Mazzo and John Prinz foreground, and Sara Leland and Anthony Blum, choreography by Jerome Robbins

Such tags as these got connected to sections of his ballet in the wake of its growing popularity: a playful solo, to an etude, for a dancer, defined as "in Green" got dubbed "Mistress of the manor," a delicate duet, to a waltz, for a woman, originally the dancer identified as "in Mauve" and a man "in Olive," became known as the "Wind waltz," a competitive dance for two men, to a mazurka, originally the one "in Brown" and the other "in Mustard," became known as a "big dog/little dog" romp, a teasing, athletic duet to a waltz, for a woman "in Apricot" and a man "in Blue-Green" was said to play out as a "Giggle dance," and a quintet to a mazurka for two women, the ones "in Pink" and "in Blue" and three men, "in Olive," "in Mustard" and "in Plum," included some paused groupings of held poses that acquired the sense of snapshot posing.

Meanwhile back in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division's audio, video and written archives, some of Robbins' ideas and intentions particularly antidote his statement of "no"s. Take for example the "place" of Dances. Thomas Skelton's deftly designed atmospheric lighting was astutely described by Edwin Denby in his commentary for a cover story and photographic spread in the Life Magazine's October 3, 1969 issue, as providing the ballet with a "vaguely changeable" sky, strongly and aptly suggesting an outdoor surround. This changeable atmosphere seems to carry over to the final scene, for the full cast to Nocturne, op. 15 no. 1, which follows the nicknamed "Storm" of the preceding section, for 6 dancers to a Scherzo, op. 20, no. 1. If however you listen to the '76 audio interview in the Jerome Robbins Collection, you'll learn something else. Robbins sees the "place" of the dancers gathered for his ballet's finale as an interior: "it's as if people had come back to a hall they once danced in - it might be a stage, it might be a ballet room, it might be a terrific old ballroom in a castle which is now deserted, one could think of Ingmar Bergman's chateaux and mists and sunshine, shadows, beams of light that crossed into it."

As for the dancers gathered throughout his Chopin ballet, possibly in response to peasant-like detailing found in Joe Eula's costuming, particularly for the belted-blouse-with-soft-calf-high-boots scheme for the men, Robbins offers the following: "I don't see the people as peasants at all! to me they are very very well brought up aristocratic people, not snobbish, but gentlemen and ladies, some royalty: they are barons and dukes and princesses - vicomtesses at a picnic recalling time in spring, and summer, in love."

Eula's peasant or aristocratic costuming resulted when Robbins commissioned the fashion illustrator out of the blue after seeing what he'd done as a graphic image to promote a fundraiser for Cesar Chavez and a migrant workers' benefit, even though the illustrator had not previously done costumes for dancers. That secondary, social-activist connection also delicately reverberates with the era's flower-child aspects and interests.

The musical inspiration for Dances at a Gathering directly reflects that of the preceding ballet that Robbins created for New York City Ballet in 1956, which was his last effort for the company before going off to work independently on Broadway, in the movies and with his own chamber scale company, Ballets: U.S.A. The earlier work, initially called The Concert, A Charade in One Act, and eventually named The Concert, or the Perils of Everybody, also used Chopin piano music. As it turns out, in reflecting on his Dances in '76, one number from The Concert, soon dropped from the mix, remained connected to the 1969 ballet. As he tells it, the one-time Concert segment, a solo for Tanaquil Le Clercq, a dancer Robbins revered and to whom he was especially close, was set to a Mazurka, op. 24, no. 4. The reasons for the elimination of the mazurka solo from The Concert stem for the facts that Le Clercq was stricken with polio, which ended her dancing career and by what Robbins's describes as the puzzlement of audiences faced with the straight rather than witty tone of its choreography amid The Concert's overall comedy. In looking back from his Dances, he noted that Le Clercq's mazurka "really was the beginning of Dances at a Gathering," adding that he could take "that dance right out of The Concert as I choreographed it then and put it in Dances now."

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NYCB rehearsal of "Dances at a Gathering" with (C) choreographer Jerome Robbins, (L-R on floor) dancers Sara Leland & Kay Mazzo, (top L-R) Bruce Welles, Violette Verdy, Anthony Blum, Patricia McBride & John Prinz, Edward Villella & Robert Maiorano

Stepping forward from Dances, which closes to the aforementioned nocturne arranged to present its full cast's coming together in a beloved place, Robbins proceeded the very next year, 1970, to show another Chopin ballet, In the Night, a 3-couple dance to four nocturnes. Though extant background materials to this ballet are less numerous than those of Dances, I think it safe to say that the identifications given to the male half of the couples by fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, for the designs done for a staging of the ballet in Havana with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, wherein he noted the men, in order of their appearance, as "The Poet," "The Officer" and "The Gentleman," would not pass muster with Robbins. His correspondence in 1985 indicates a lack of awareness of de la Renta's costume scheme, and squelched their proposed, further use for a San Francisco Ballet staging. Even if these designs had prevailed, there's a good chance they'd have been denied their "character" identifications, and we'd be told in no uncertain terms that here are NO POETS, OFFICERS or GENTLEMEN in In the Night!

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