The curtain rose on an empty stage, backlit by a screen of bright blue sky. A man glided onto the stage with a sense of wonder, looking about him, and began to dance gleefully and gracefully across the stage. Dances at a Gathering, a ballet choreographed 40 years ago by world-renowned Jerome Robbins, was performed by dancers from the New York City Ballet at the ’62 Center’s MainStage on Monday.
The ballet consists of eight short dances performed as solos or in groups of up to six dancers to the music of a sole piano. Robbins’ work does not tell one story or follow a plotline, but instead focuses on the nature of relationships and individual roles, thoughts and feelings within those relationships. Throughout the ballet, the dancers formed different relationships, dancing with a variety of partners or groups. These interactions, portrayed through body language, facial expression and music, portrayed humor, lust, love, confusion and loneliness.
Many of the dances let the dancers play with one another flirtatiously. The interactions between males and females involved a lot of strutting around, posing, stomping and jigging, evoking the sense of a somewhat silly while still beautiful mating ritual. One dance begins with one male courting a female duo, with him showing off through a series of leaps and hand grasps and the two females exhibiting a playful jealousy. Soon the man ran off, and in came a trio of three males, delighting the females and causing them to up their flirtatious twirls. They paired off, leaving one man, despite his efforts, alone and dejected. When another dancer entered and accepted him, he whisked her off in excitement, and they began a slow, sensual dance. His measured and tender movements demonstrated how he cherished his newfound love even more than those who found theirs easily. This scene was just a taste of the wide-ranging emotional interactions Robbins creates between the energetic and lustful dancers.
After moving between playful, frantic, sensual and sweet sensations, the dances culminated in a very simple, serene last scene, the only dance to include all the dancers on the stage simultaneously. They glided across the stage, intermingling, and then stood facing the audience, following the same invisible object up and around with their eyes. In the Q&A after the performance, one dancer said that Robbins changed his story repeatedly as to at what the dancers were looking. At one point, he said, it was a flock of birds, but at another point it was, most poignantly, the last time the dancers would see that one theater again and therefore they were gazing around the room to say goodbye. The dancers then paired off contentedly and walked slowly off stage as the curtain fell. After the rush of changing emotions and impressively graceful movement, Robbins decided to end the ballet simplistically, presenting a moment of serenity in the emotional and incongruous life of the human.
As dancers leaped in the air to be caught in another’s arms like feathers, twirled on their toes with the utmost grace and portrayed a wild range of emotions, I could not help but be impressed. Sitting in the front row, though, some of the illusion of the dancers’ ease was lost: I could hear them breathing heavily after their difficult movements and their faces seemed somewhat cartoonish. The overdone facial expressions reminded me of an article posted on the bathroom wall of my dorm last year, which excoriated ballet dancers for ruining their incredible grace and talent with their plastered-on smiles. For me, their intense facial emotions took away from their beautiful body language.
Despite this small complaint, I fully enjoyed myself at this playful yet elegant show and was happy to hear the dancers talk about their experiences, all relaxed, in the Q&A session. Demonstrating the nature of this performance, one dancer who had worked on Dances at a Gathering with Jerome Robbins himself, reported that as she first stepped onto the stage to rehearse in front of him, he frightened her with a “Hey!” making her feel she had done something wrong before she had begun; reassuring her, he continued, “It’s fun!”