After watching the three happy Jerome Robbins works that New York City Ballet performed this weekend, you felt you could float up the Kennedy Center aisles and down the escalators and keep drifting on toward the Potomac. Who needed a car?
For the most part, classical ballet deals with myth and legends, while its neoclassical heirs prefer abstractions and hypotheticals. Between those two styles stands Jerome Robbins. He’s the emperor of sidewalks and bar stools, sailors and city folks. He found his ideals on the streets of Manhattan. Some of them popped up in the Robbins centennial program that NYCB opened Friday night at the Opera House.
Robbins’s works haven’t gone out of style, but it’s rare to see an entire evening of them. With his 100th birthday coming in October, NYCB offered a program devoted to his light side: “Fancy Free,” where servicemen tumble into a bar for drinks and dames; “Glass Pieces,” a meditation on simplicity that begins with pedestrians and ends with angels; and “The Four Seasons,” which flips its angels on their ears, with a cast of funny, deeply human demigods who are no more adept at courtship than the overeager sailors of “Fancy Free.”
Robbins, who died in 1998, will be forever associated with Broadway and “West Side Story,” along with his other musical-theater treasures. Yet his greatest love was ballet, something he spoke about in interviews, and he kept making ballets all his life, which is evidence enough. After starting as a dancer and choreographer at what would become American Ballet Theatre, Robbins moved to NYCB and remained there, in between Broadway productions, for some 40 years.
Not all of Robbins’s ballets were joyous. “The Cage,” for instance, features female insects that kill their mates. Certainly his creative process has gone down in lore as none too pleasant for those in the room with him. But what breathtaking humanity he brought to life in his works: red-blooded roles, wit, warmth. In 1944, with “Fancy Free,” Robbins used the lopsided sexual math of the war years — servicemen deprived of women, women deprived of dates — to help launch a revolution. Here was a truly American ballet. Instead of ghosts and royals, the stuff of European ballet, Robbins gave us sailors on shore leave, cavorting over beers.
But what makes this ballet sing is not merely its subject but its construction: the way it moves from scene to scene, each one conveying meaning through an emotional arc that feels true, in a way that any of us can recognize.
At one point, dancers Harrison Coll, as one of the sailors, and Sterling Hyltin, as the woman he’s wooing, are trapped at the bar in an awkward silence. Then they begin to dance, to one of the sweetest tunes in Leonard Bernstein’s ardent if patched-together composition. And we see the relationship change, by their postures, their gaze, the way he lifts her and the way they both begin to lag the music, as if willing it to last. Loneliness becomes curiosity, then vulnerability and finally the most revealing, sensitive note: gratitude. Their duet ends with a kiss, but more important is the way Hyltin tilts her face to look at Coll afterward, and in her expression is a flash of awakening.
“Glass Pieces,” from 1983, with music from Philip Glass’s opera “Akhnaten” and other works, and “The Four Seasons” (1979), which gallops along to a Verdi score of the same name, are more intricate works. They gush forth in a rush and are similarly exhilarating though they’re wildly different in tone, idiom and design. Both were performed beautifully Friday. Maria Kowroski was the spellbinding heart of “Glass Pieces,” amid a corps of dancers bustling about like wonderfully plain, normal-looking people. Subtly and steadily, their simplicity becomes transcendent.
Joaquin De Luz and Ashley Bouder capped “The Four Seasons” with electrifying technique and yards of charm. But Robbins’s easy way with comedy was truly the star here. In the “Spring” section, the men bounce around, doing Italian changements — jumps with both feet pulled up underneath the body — and it’s hilarious. Just timing and sequencing, simple and brilliant. Robbins gives us riches we can relate to. He shows us the art of our own lives.