Studio Visit: Reconstructing Rondo
Repertory Director Christine Redpath on a Lost Robbins Ballet
January 12, 2023,
In 1980, Jerome Robbins’s Rondo made its stage debut. Set to Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, a characteristically rich, elegant piece for solo piano, the ballet features two women costumed in simple light pink leotards; they exchange phrases and occasionally partner one another, sharing the stage in a playful, intimate conversation for the work’s ten delightful minutes. Succinct, prescient, and a breath of fresh air, Rondo is the sole Robbins piece for the Company scored by Mozart’s music. Created on then-Principal Dancers Kyra Nichols and Stephanie Saland, the work received just a few performances before disappearing from the Company’s active repertory.
What do we lose when a ballet is “lost,” particularly without recorded performances or timely revivals to preserve the specific footwork? What does it take to reconstruct such a ballet, as faithfully as possible? And what is regained by recreating it with today’s performers, who though inheritors of much the same training and tradition, are inherently different, in ways the choreographer might never have imagined? As Rondo makes its second NYCB debut, we spoke with former Soloist and current Repertory Director Christine Redpath about the preparations and her essential role in that process and more.
Please tell us a little bit about your background with the Company and how you came to be a repertory director with NYCB.
I was living in New Jersey as a child, where I studied first with a Russian teacher that Mr. B knew; then, with Fred Danieli, who was one of Balanchine’s Ballet Society [a precursor to NYCB] dancers. While I was there, my friend [former NYCB Soloist and Repertory Director] Victor Castelli and I were given scholarships to come to the School of American Ballet in the summertime, so we commuted by bus together. They wanted me to attend the Performing Arts High School, but I decided with my family to go to regular high school. When I graduated, I got into the Company, which was great. I was recently telling [Corps de Ballet Member] Christina Clark and a couple of the other dancers that, like so many dancers, Nutcracker was the first ballet I saw as a little girl and said, “This is what I want to do.” I put the record on, skipped around the living room ad nauseam, and announced that I had to have classes.
I became a soloist with the Company and danced plenty of the principal roles, for which I am so thankful. I danced a lot of Robbins rep as well as Mr. B’s, and was a guinea pig for a lot of other choreographers who came in. It was a great, rich experience. Then, I left in 1978. I think I was emotionally not ready for a lot of things that came at me; I didn't know how to sort it out. I thought I was going to stop dancing, but I was completely unhappy. That was not my solution at all. Luckily, thankfully, so many people helped me—[former NYCB Principal Dancers] Patti [Patricia] McBride, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and Jacques D’Amboise, and Rebekah Harkness gave me free classes.
Mr. B had suggested Zürich Ballet, and I said “No, no,” but I ended up there and danced with the company for three years, while [former NYCB Soloist] Patricia Neary was the director. Mr. B came over several times, and it was great to see him; we did Liebeslieder Walzer and Stravinsky Violin Concerto and plenty of his rep, as kind of one of his satellite companies. We also danced with [Rudolf] Nureyev, which was really fun; he would pay lots of attention to those of us from NYCB because he was dying to work with Mr. B.
I returned to New York in 1983 or so. I danced with a very small, wonderful company, Chamber Ballet USA, led by Finis Jhung, a famous teacher who is still going strong in New York City today. It was a small company of various soloists from different companies, eight dancers in all, and we toured the country. It was a cool bus-and-truck thing with the tutus swinging on the overhead railing. They were a wonderful group of people and my experience deepened.
Around that time, Patti and Jean-Pierre had invited me to their residency in Chautauqua to teach their summer course and stage a few ballets for them. The first ballets I taught were Concerto Barocco and Who Cares?, and it was a great experience. Then, I was rehearsing for a gig with Patti and Jean-Pierre out in Indianapolis—his choreography of Othello with [former NYCB Soloist] Mel Tomlinson—and I was coming into the theater to rehearse, and Peter Martins and Barbara Horgan saw me. I got a phone call from them after that; they said, “Jerry is looking for an assistant. [Former Principal Dancer and Repertory Director Sara] Sally Leland has most of his rep on her plate, as well as other ballets, which is too much for her. Would you be interested?”
Robbins wanted to meet with me, though, so I met him backstage at a performance, and he sat me down on a bench and said, “Well, Chris, I think this could be a good fit. But you know, I'm kind of difficult,” and I just burst out laughing—”Yeah, I happen to know that. Let's give it a shot and see if I can get inside your brain to translate what you give to the dancers.” So I took on a lot of the rep, learning from Sally Leland, [Former Principal Dancer] Bart Cook, and Susie [former Soloist and Repertory Director Susan Hendl]. The first Robbins Festival in 1990 was way too much, it wouldn't have happened if it was just me doing it; Victor and JP [former Soloist and current Repertory Director Jean-Pierre Frohlich] broke away from their dancing to help. JP and I have that wonderful legacy to maintain now. I'm also grateful that I do some of the Balanchine ballets as well, little jewels, which I treasure.
Can you share more about your history with Jerome Robbins?
It was great. I always got along with him, I was one of the “Robbins girls,” while being in a lot of Mr. B's ballets, too. It's interesting, as time goes on, and as a repertory director, I understand [Robbins] a lot better. We all knew to be prepared that he'll give you one idea, and that's going to be A; then he's going to say, “Well, keep that, let me go on to this and try B”; then he would try C; then he would mix them around; and then he'd go back to A again—all this right up to the performance. And he could be very nasty. But I get that he was frustrated within himself creatively, and he was probably insecure.
Anyway, I loved it. In his own way, he would be appreciative. A lot of people in that generation couldn't be very demonstrative in a positive way. Every now and then you were bowled over when they gave you some kind of encouragement or a “Thank you.” But I just liked him. I was recently remembering when he sent me to Paris to do In G Major, [originally titled] “En Sol,” in an all-Robbins tribute that [the Paris Opera Ballet] gave. He was very vulnerable—his partner at the time, Jesse [Gerstein], had just died. And he was kind of at a loss, he couldn't concentrate. We were doing casting and he said, “You know, I took the Concorde home, and I arrived at the same time that I left Paris.” It was out of nowhere—we were talking with the Paris Opera dancers to get this show on. I just thought, “Oh, sweet man.”
He was still demanding [of me] as a rep director, and all of us were fearful that when he got older, his temper tantrums would magnify, or be worse. But that wasn't the case. As a matter of fact, we all joked because he loved dogs and I would bring my golden retrievers to the studios, and I was offered money by some rehearsals that I wasn't involved in to have my dog be present in the room. Because if he started to get like this, he would reach down to pet the dog, and the dog would thump her tail in response. It took his angst away, or whatever it was. There were some sweet moments of insecurity towards the end of his life, “Do I really still have this,” and yet he created some really amazing work.
What is it like to be reconstructing Rondo, a piece that hasn’t been seen on this Company since its premiere in 1980? Can you describe that process, any challenges or exciting elements to it?
I never saw Rondo, and there are only two rehearsal tapes that exist. They're in black and white, and they’re filmed from the back of the orchestra seating section, not even from the First Ring. It's [former NYCB dancers] Kyra Nichols and Stephanie Saland, and [former NYCB Music Director] Gordon Boelzner is the pianist, upstage right. Of the two tapes, I've been referring to the later one for the most part, because that's theoretically what he ended up with. There are a few places here and there, who knows what really happened. I've spoken to both Kyra and Stephanie; Kyra will be coming to rehearsal to have a look, and we’re talking about possibly Zooming with Stephanie to get her with the dancers as well. It's been great working with these dancers, collaboratively; we’re all standing around my iPad propped on the piano, and we're all listening and intently translating it. But it's been wonderful rehearsing Rondo. It's very “Jerry,” and it’s a lovely process so far.
As rep directors, we often look at the archived performance tapes to learn something, or refresh something, because there are so many ballets now and so many steps. It's amazing how much this Company manages to do.
Can you describe the work in your own words, as most of us will not have seen it?
It's a sweet little—I don't want to say unpretentious, but very gentle piece, showing two very different personas, who are together on the stage in a very elegant, conversational, understated way. Kyra said she remembers that Jerry asked them to come in the day before, on the Company’s free day, and rehearse it onstage because he wasn't happy with it and needed to see it again—that's the later tape that we have. Rondo only had a couple of performances; that sometimes happens. But I am glad that it is being seen again. It'll be so interesting to see whether the audience responds, and to see what it has to offer this many years later—especially with these dancers, now, bringing themselves to it in their unique, beautiful, individual ways. I'm really so happy that I'm involved.
You were also responsible for reconstructing Balanchine’s Haieff Divertimento, which the Company performed in 2020 after a 26-year absence.
Yes, with [former NYCB Corps de Ballet Member and Repertory Director Richard] Dick Tanner. You can see the precursors to The Four Temperaments, some signature quotes that he took from the early version of Haieff and expanded on into Four Ts. While working on it, I saw the original Playbill and learned that my early teacher Fred Danieli was one of the original dancers in Haieff. Now that I coach it, I dedicate it to him in my mind. There are several of those sorts of coincidences in my connection with this Company. Very mystical, which I love.
Can you describe stepping into the role of repertory director, and what the position entails?
I love being able to give to other dancers. And I love when I happen to be the person with the key to another person understanding the movement. I'm not always that—there are plenty of us to go around that have their own set of keys. I’m happy to be doing this with the Company, which has been my home for so long, and to give back what I've learned, or to try to. All that I absorbed from Jerry, working with him—and Mr. B, too. They wanted a similar aesthetic, and being yourself on the stage, bringing your own joy, your own persona, to the choreography, in the most accurate way within their framework, their steps with their musicality.
We [repertory directors] work collectively. We meet with [Artistic Director] Jonathan Stafford and [Associate Artistic Director] Wendy Whelan and make an outline of the repertory and the dancers who might bring themselves beautifully to the different parts; then, we're in charge of teaching everyone what they're doing, where they're going in this space, and putting it on the stage. We oversee the stage rehearsals, and we work together with the crew on the lighting, with the wardrobe team on the costumes, and with the Orchestra on the tempo of the music. We also support and encourage the dancers. We're in this boat together. It's such a wonderful room to be in.
And, the joy of dancing. The joy of dancing is why I think everybody in the Company is here. And it’s such a good thing. We're lucky.