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This month the New York City Ballet is reviving Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering (1969), a twentieth-century masterpiece that has acquired a certain mystique. Deborah Jowitt wrote in her Village Voice review that it was "so eloquent, so true to itself that the critical eye is confounded." The success of the ballet seems to depend equally on Robbins's bountiful inventiveness, Chopin's meltingly beautiful music and the poetic dancing.

When he started working on the piece, Robbins had been away from the company for ten years, during which he had grown into a giant of Broadway. He had directed and choreographed the groundbreaking musical West Side Story in 1957 (the year he won a Dance Magazine Award), the beloved Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, and had toured with his own company, Ballets U.S.A. Robbins had been so pleased with the way Patricia McBride and Edward Villella were performing his Afternoon of a Faun (1953)--also to be seen this season at NYCB--that he agreed to make a pas de deux for the two dancers. The cast soon grew to include Allegra Kent, Sara Leland, Kay Mazzo, Violette Verdy, Anthony Blum, John Clifford, Robert Maiorano and John Prinz.

Dance Magazine has asked contributing editor Allegra Kent to recount the beginnings of Dances at a Gathering from her point of view. In addition, we excerpt a conversation between the renowned critic Edwin Denby and Robbins that appeared in the July 1969 issue of Dance Magazine.

--Wendy Perron

Thirty-two years ago, after the first performance of Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering, there was an electric response from the audience. When Jerry joined us in the bows, holding our hands, he looked elated. At the intermission the connoisseurs and rank-and-file regulars rose from their seats in a rhapsodic daze. One passionate ballet fan told me that this performance renewed her faith in dance.

Yet there was no scenery or orchestra--only ten dancers, one grand piano onstage and the New York City Ballet's extraordinary pianist, Gordon Boelzner, performing eighteen pieces by Frederic Chopin. He played in an egoless way, not as a concert pianist, but for the dancers, with bold tempos and exquisite virtuosity.

At first I was not involved in Dances. When Jerry decided to enlarge it at Mr. B's recommendation--"More, make more!"--he started to add various names to his rehearsal schedule. As Jerry made these additions, he chose dancers for their disparate characteristics and body types--short, tall, ethereal, earthy, unpredictable (that was me), younger and older. With this range of personalities, Jerry wished to create a sense of community, as suggested by the title. The work also had an improvisational quality. The dances sprang into being from emotions felt during a walk, an upward look or a touch of the floor.

Before the cast expanded, I had been watching Jerry's pas de deux for Patricia McBride and Edward Villella as it progressed, particularly if I was called to a rehearsal that began right after their session. I would come in early to warm up and watch. The music, choreography and the dancers held me spellbound. This was a gorgeous work.

When I saw my name on the list I showed up for the practice sessions. For the first week I was rarely used and spent much of the time sitting and watching. Jerry, who had been working in other branches of the performing arts, wanted everyone he selected present for every hour of rehearsal in case he had a sudden inspiration.

That was not Balanchine's style. Mr. B had a merciful sense of economy when using dancers' time. He also knew who he wanted and did not waver in his choice. Jerry started with certain dancers and steps and often continued to experiment with a variation of what he just created or even a different cast. Everything was always in flux for him. And for the dancers.

Jerry was a perfectionist in every aspect of creation. This was his first encounter with the main rehearsal hall of the New York State Theater. He was doing a ballet with an outdoor natural atmosphere, and working in a windowless room with harsh fluorescent lights. (He noticed what we had noticed all along.) His solution was to request theatrical lights to soften the clinical effect. It helped somewhat.

Very soon after I joined these rehearsals, Mr. B told me that Seven Deadly Sins would come back into the repertoire for that season. The role of Anna I, my alter ego, which was originally sung by Lotte Lenya in 1958, would now be performed by Bette Midler. At that point I decided to bow out of Dances because the hours Robbins required were so long, and Seven Deadly Sins would also need a great deal of rehearsal time.

Jerry seemed to understand why I took myself out of his ballet, and our relationship remained cordial. Then, about four weeks later, I was told that Bette Midler was no longer available to sing the Sins and they were out--all seven of them.

A day or two after this depressing news, I met Jerry in the hallway of the State Theater while walking to a rehearsal. He stopped me and fastened his eyes upon my eyes. "Allegra, I'm sorry Seven Deadly Sins was canceled. You must be disappointed." I was struck with the empathy in his voice.

"Yes, I am," I responded in an undertone.

"I'd really like you back in Dances. Why don't you come to a rehearsal tomorrow and we can work. It will only be for two or three hours." Jerry's way of saying "work" had a sacred sound.

The next afternoon, Jerry created a new section for John Clifford and me. Working with John was sheer play. We passed our energy back and forth like a volleyball. The piece was an exhilarating romp, but all of a sudden the music became wistful, like a deeply felt emotion that arrives, is voiced and stirs the heart. With that, everything changed--the choreography and the intensity of our feelings. I loved this new dance and that moment in particular.

Later in the same section, I did a pirouette, and while descending to the floor I slid into a split. From this low position John lifted my body upward and wrapped me around his neck like a scarf. From long, low and lengthy I became high, small and concise. To be with a choreographer at the creative beginning, when the flow of steps is strong, steady and tailored for you alone, is a dancer's dream.

In these rehearsals my delight was to watch Jerry demonstrate. He infused every dancing moment with weight, substance and supreme musicality. These qualities made him riveting in action. Ten years earlier, Jerry had been exact in explaining what he envisioned in Afternoon of a Faun. In this duet with John and me, later called the "giggle dance," he spoke less, wanting us only to watch and listen. There were suites of dances before, but never one so unadorned in a theatrical sense that became such an emotional journey.

The more I captured Jerry's unique style, the happier we both were. This was true of everyone in the cast. It was also just what we did with Balanchine--watch him intently. One of Jerry's great joys, when he was still performing, was to observe Mr. B during rehearsals. Now we were watching Robbins. Great choreographers and how they demonstrate their styles are the dancers' libretto, text and subtext.

In July of that year, Life magazine considered Dances at a Gathering worthy of a lavish photographic essay by Gjon Mili. I was pictured on the cover, with Anthony Blum seen as a second dancing figure through a translucent splash of my apricot costume.

Jerry's reemergence into the ballet world with a masterpiece was great news. Now those devotees of dance who lived and breathed ballet had something to call each other about after a performance and talk about into the wee hours.

And so a chance invitation to create a dance gave Jerome Robbins back to the NYCB and the dance world at large.
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Title Annotation:history of Dances at a Gathering by Jerome Robbins
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Next Article:Robbins On Robbins.

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