"When I watch Balanchine work, it's so extraordinary I want to give up," grumbled Jerome Robbins in his journal in 1971. How very fortunate we are that he pushed past this and delivered, among other gems, "Glass Pieces," which the New York City Ballet gave a smart, revved-up performance on Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Robbins's lament, as recorded in Deborah Jowitt's 2004 biography of the desperately conflicted man, reflected his intractable perfectionism and the insecurity he suffered in working under the same roof as one of the greatest dance geniuses of all time. Imagine measuring your efforts against, for example, George Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes," Thursday's frisky patriotic closer set to Sousa marches, which glitters with nonchalant confidence even as it recalibrates classical technique. How could Robbins, influential though he was, hope to match Balanchine's supreme command?
Damian Woetzel of the New York City Ballet soars in "Stars and Stripes," one of three works presented Thursday at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
But Robbins had another perspective to offer, a ground-level view of ballet that was his alone. The human dimension pulses throughout "Glass Pieces," a work that premiered within days of Balanchine's death in 1983. With it he surely reassured audiences of the ongoing vitality of Balanchine's enterprise.
The piece was a departure for Robbins, who was known for more lyrical works. Here he used the obsessive minimalism of Philip Glass as a force field out of which stylized but decidedly earthly dancing emerged. The work is full of counterpoints: The graph-paper grid backdrop brings to mind desk-bound computations, while the dancers in their pastel-colored practice clothes look springy and fresh, and their stripped-down movements have a refined, velvety finish. The first section packs a punch simply by juxtaposing brisk walking with Glass's hypnotic outpouring.
In the second section, a slow, shifting procession of women recalls the delicate parade of phantom virgins in the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from Marius Petipa's "La Bayadere," an iconic ballet image reconstituted as an abstracted chorus line. It is also mesmerizing wallpaper against which Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal's slippery pas de deux brings to mind electron bonding and the unstoppable, ongoing force of life. The third section allows a long, slow look at the company's impressive roster of men, culminating in a whirling, stomping folk dance that combines the rush-hour tempo of the opening and the fluidity of the duet -- and celebrates a human triumph over the computer age's driving pace.
You can imagine Robbins drawing inspiration from watching crowds crisscross the plaza in front of the New York State Theater, the company's home. Balanchine took in Manhattan's buzz too, channeling its swiftness and unbound energy into the strictly codified ballet vocabulary he had brought over from Russia. By the time he made "Stars and Stripes" in 1958, Balanchine had been Americanizing ballet for 20 years.
Infused with wit but utterly without irony, "Stars and Stripes" is a salute to his adoptive home and its postwar boom time. Thus you have leggy rows of ballerina-cadets pawing the floor like sly kittens in their white toe shoes and ankle socks. Or firing off ear-high kicks like rounds of artillery. Thursday, corps member Sterling Hyltin made a bright debut leading the First Campaign, as the first section is called. The impeccably cool Damian Woetzel and pixie soubrette Ashley Bouder carried off the Fourth Campaign with throwaway ease and precision, despite some slick spots in the floor. Sandwiched between the streamlined rigors of "Glass Pieces" and "Stars and Stripes" was "Thou Swell," whose charms were all but smothered in decorative excess. Peter Martins, head of City Ballet, created this piece two years ago for songwriter Richard Rodgers's centennial. A glossy nightclub, complete with an angled overhead mirror and a big white piano, is the setting for a series of romantic duets set to 16 Rodgers songs. It was a family affair for Martins, who watched wife Darci Kistler and son Nilas Martins from the audience.
Martins's choreography favored the women, especially Kistler, who was swooshed around by partner Jock Soto as if she were made of nothing but lace and air. Jenifer Ringer made a knowing game of "The Lady Is a Tramp," tossed about by three men but having the last word with her wise, dark eyes. Corps member Faye Arthurs debuted as one of the leading women, using her long refined line to advantage.
With Kistler floridly romantic and Ringer ready for a good time, Yvonne Borree was the quiet one, paired with Nilas Martins and never letting him get too close. But if her style was reserved, her gown was flirtatiously less modest, a wisp of red and taupe chiffon that moved better than the other dancers' more substantial frocks. Costume-wise, the poor men were wholly ill-served: Their high-collared dress shirts made them look like they had no necks and extra-wide cummerbunds thickened their waists, giving the impression that four classy ladies had somehow fallen in with a bunch of overstuffed accountants. Yet if you got past the Atlantic City set, the unbecoming attire and the onstage singers' tendency to oversell, there was a pleasant stream of dancing to enjoy.
This program repeats tomorrow afternoon. The company performs other works through tomorrow night.