Much copied but never duplicated, choreographer Jerome Robbins had a gift for transforming the ordinary into the exquisite. Dancing his ballets requires subtlety, unaffected nonchalance and dry wit--along with impeccable technique. How rewarding it was to see the San Francisco Ballet so richly endowed with all these qualities Tuesday night in its performance of an all-Robbins program--"In the Night," "The Cage," "A Suite of Dances" and "Glass Pieces"--at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
To the public, Robbins is most widely known for his choreography in such defining Broadway musicals as "West Side Story," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Gypsy." Most of his ballets--and there are dozens and dozens of them--are less familiar, at least outside New York. A relentless perfectionist, Robbins was wary of lending his works to anyone apart from American Ballet Theatre or the New York City Ballet, where he was a ballet master for most of his career.
The San Francisco Ballet comes by its Robbins repertoire through the close association between its artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, and the choreographer. Robbins had urged the young Icelandic dancer to come to the United States; they later worked together when Tomasson joined the New York City Ballet.
Robbins was a master of concise, uncannily telling characterizations. This was evident during "In the Night" (1970), for three couples, set to three Chopin nocturnes. Like his other Chopin ballets ("Dances at a Gathering" and "Other Dances"), it has a shadowy, romantic feel--lovers meeting by starlight.
Here the range of the San Francisco ballerina ranks was gloriously apparent. Joanna Berman was notable for her complete lack of mannerisms, her powdery softness and beautifully arched feet. Muriel Maffre was both regal and vulnerable. Lorena Feijoo had a pleasing plushness and lots of spark. All made you believe they were women with pasts and futures, yet through Robbins's alchemy they seemed light as air, improvements on flesh and blood.
"The Cage"--a ballerina showcase of another kind--is early Robbins (1951), though its impact is undiminished. This ballet is a delicious revenge fantasy for jilted lonely hearts. With biting humor and his Broadway eye for long legs and group formations, Robbins has envisioned an initiation ritual in a species of female bugs that eat their mates. Maffre is the ruthless Queen of a den of wild-haired harpies that welcomes to life a Novice, danced by the pliant and riveting Lucia Lacarra. As she toyed with and then destroyed the two Intruders (David Palmer and Steven Norman), she could seem by turns tender and cruel, at times in the same musical phrase. (The accompaniment was Stravinsky's Concerto in D for String Orchestra.)
Robbins created "A Suite of Dances" for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1994 (and the dancer brought it here with his White Oak Dance Project later that year). Replacing an injured Yuri Possokhov, Vadim Solomakha danced the solo role Tuesday in the company premiere of the work.
Solomakha, a Ukrainian, bears a striking resemblance to Baryshnikov, though he's taller; even his phrasing and touches of wit brought Baryshnikov's performance of the suite to mind. These dances, set to two preludes, a gigue and the saraband from Bach's C Minor Suite, are all gesture and air, with a few soaring dance steps thrown in. Mostly what's needed is a relaxed naturalness and sense of spontaneity, and that Solomakha brought both to bear on a role he had understudied was remarkable.
"Glass Pieces," which closed the program, was by contrast bracing in its simplicity and abstractness. Set to three compositions by Philip Glass, the dancing matched the music's insistent repetitions with recurring patterns of its own.
The backdrop--a brightly lit graph-paper grid--emphasized the mathematical inevitabilities of the configurations, some of which seemed able to repeat with slight variations into infinity. The music of the first section, "Rubric," gurgled like champagne pouring endlessly out of a bottle, and the dancers paced busily across the stage. Out of the throng, three couples emerged, but they, too, possessed the same obsession with symmetry and repetition.
The second section, "Facades," was darker and even more hypnotic. As a slow duet unfolded in the foreground, the corps was against the back, alternately fading back and moving forward like the teeth of a giant knitting machine.
Finally, "Akhnaten" made a bold statement with an all-male contingent. But as they were joined by the women and all froze in darkened free-form silhouettes against the grid, one was left to ponder both the smallness and the grandeur of human ability.
This program repeats tonight.
CAPTION: Yuan Yuan Tan and Stephen Legate in the abstractly hypnotic "Glass Pieces."