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Dancers, Gathering

Conversations between Generations of Blue and Green


A sensation at its premiere in 1969, Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering powerfully reflected the moods and movements of its Chopin piano score. Reviewers and audiences speculated on the meanings and characters of this mesmerizing, abstract work, assigning sometimes political, sometimes romantic motivations to the piece. In an infamous response to such conjectures in Ballet Review, Robbins wrote, in all caps, “THE DANCERS ARE THEMSELVES DANCING WITH EACH OTHER TO THAT MUSIC IN THAT SPACE.”

With this in mind, the development of every artist's approach to the roles—named after the hues of their gossamer costumes—is an unavoidably personal, individual project. This spring, several dancers will be making their debuts in Dances, and must wrestle with this abstractness and its relationship to the choreography. We listened in on conversations with two of these performers—Corps de Ballet Member Alston Macgill, in Blue, and Principal Dancer Isabella LaFreniere, in Green—and their recently retired predecessors: Lauren King and Maria Kowroski, respectively.

Originated by late NYCB icon Sara “Sally” Leland, Blue is emblematic of the communal spirit of Dances at a Gathering, appearing throughout the piece, although without a solo or pas de deux of her own. For retired Soloist Lauren King, who currently teaches at the School of American Ballet and works with The George Balanchine Foundation, the role was a regular one in her repertory. She had plenty to share with Alston Macgill in preparation for her debut.

ALSTON MACGILL: My first role in Dances at a Gathering will be Blue. I didn't really have any preconceived notions going into rehearsals. It’s a completely new experience for me, other than having seen the Company do it and knowing that it's a quintessential ballet in our repertory. I've been watching the videos, and Lauren, I've been watching your videos a lot. It’s been really fun to watch you dance.

It’s also my first lead role in a Robbins ballet. I've performed other Robbins works, like The Concert and Glass Pieces. They feel really comfortable dancing, those ballets—it feels like home. Dances at a Gathering is different from both of those ballets, but I think some of the coaching [Repertory Director Jean-Pierre Frohlich] gave us for The Concert applies here; he said, “Don't overact it, let the choreography do the talking.” So I'm trying to bring that to Dances—to just let it be natural.

I'm really looking forward to performing this role. The first thing Blue does is come out of the wings with the woman in Pink, and it's a really lighthearted, playful section—the Mazurka. We're interacting with one of the men, and that feeling of sharing the space together and inhabiting the music and having fun continues throughout the ballet. I think that's going to be really special, to share those moments with the other dancers onstage. That's what I'm most looking forward to.

LAUREN KING: I danced this role… I don't know how many times. I first learned it at the same time as [current Soloist] Brittany Pollack, and we learned it from both Christine Redpath and JP. Usually dancers switch around in the other roles a lot, so they have an idea of the whole ballet going into rehearsal. But Blue is often the first entrance into Dances for people, so you have a lot of rehearsals alone, and it’s really hard to feel the ballet because it's all about community and dancing with other people. You're imagining everything by yourself in the studio, so it's nice once you get together with everyone onstage and feel it all come together in that way—when it becomes an actual gathering.

ALSTON: You don't get the full experience until you get into the studio with everyone else, and then you're like, “Oh, this makes sense.” That’s when it really starts to come into focus.

LAUREN: Before I danced this role, it was mostly [former Principal Dancer] Abi Stafford who had done it. She's crystal clear in everything she does, so watching her was always really helpful. A lot of dancers will retire with this ballet, because it feels so personal—you feel like you can really be yourself. Being involved in those retirement performances and watching people who you look up to are some of my favorite memories of Dances. No matter how many times you do this ballet and watch it as a dancer, it feels like you're always able to see something new. Everyone brings their own thing to it, so it’s different every time; it's always nice to watch from the wings.

Alston, I know they always say “Just mark it.” It’s hard to embody that when you're still trying to find your space in the piece. The most special things about this ballet are the relationships with other people and feeling like you can actually be a person in it.

ALSTON: Once we are finished learning the steps and the spacing, we can start moving into that point with the ballet. We're getting glimpses of it in rehearsals now. But that'll be exciting.

LAUREN: Plus, you're perfect for this role. You’re so pure, and that's what this is all about. It's not about doing the most, it's about being yourself.

I think Jerry said this, and the rep directors share it now: you're onstage, and you're performing, but you're doing it for yourself. You're always imagining that you're in a field looking at the stars or looking at the clouds, and it's really hard to do that when you're looking at a blank backdrop, but setting that world and finding ways to do that with the other people onstage is really special.

I don't think we’ve performed this ballet since COVID, so the times have changed… Robbins said that during the final section, when you're looking at the storm clouds or something passing by, you see the storm, but you move on. It’s not that you're not affected, but you continue on with what you're doing. The whole structure of the piece ends in that way. It's like no matter what, you are still continuing on and in a community with people, regardless of all the crazy things that are happening. I love that.

ALSTON: When I joined the Company, Sally was working more with principal dancers. I may have worked with her once, but I didn't really know her or get the chance to work with her much.

LAUREN: I never worked with her on this role—I don't know if she ever rehearsed it. But something that Sally would always focus on in rehearsal was doing everything bigger. And the surprises. She would say, “Okay, do it again. But surprise me.” She wanted that naturalness and the actual humanity of it. She cared about the steps, obviously; you have to be on time, do the steps, have technique, but she cared more about who you were and what you could bring to the role. Blue really embodies that.

ALSTON: Something that makes Robbins works so special, and one of his great gifts as a choreographer, is that he's able to explore and communicate humanity through dance. Dances at a Gathering really feels like a study of individual experiences and human connection. In some ways, that's different from a lot of other works that I've performed. It feels much more intimate. The stage becomes your own little world—your own space that you occupy with the music. I think that's going to feel really special.

LAUREN: Everyone in the ballet has complicated relationships and exchanges partners, but the woman in Blue really doesn't have a clear, specific partner. There’s no pas de deux that's just your own, no section that's just Blue. She just pops in and out, almost like the glue that holds everyone together.

ALSTON: She does have some really joyful moments. It's light and fun.

LAUREN: It's like you're dancing it for yourself. You're not doing it for show, you're doing it to be with other people and to dance as a group instead of showing off, even though some of it is really showy. There are a lot of moments where you're looking off into the distance. Even when you're looking straight ahead at the very end, it's almost like the audience is being seen, in a way. You're looking straight at them, as though you’re bringing them in, but not quite letting them in.

After more than 25 years dancing with the Company, former Principal Dancer Maria Kowroski retired from the NYCB stage in 2021 and stepped into the role of artistic director for New Jersey Ballet. Her onstage repertory included a broad range of works by George Balanchine, Robbins, and many others. Among these was Green in Dances at a Gathering—a role taken on today by Isabella LaFreniere, who was promoted to principal dancer just last year.

MARIA KOWROSKI: Dances at a Gathering is, obviously, a special ballet, and to be invited to be a part of it is such an honor. When I debuted in it, I was very young—much like you, Isabella. Debuting in Green was a big deal. The role is about being an older ballerina and having experienced a career already, so I found it very challenging to take that on as a young dancer. When I debuted, Jock Soto was in Purple, Damian Woetzel was in Brown, Chris Wheeldon was in Brick, and Wendy was in Apricot. There were so many amazing people in the cast, all of whom had already had major careers, and I was the newbie. I got to work with former Ballet Master Victor Castelli on it, and he was wonderful. I actually got to work with Jerome Robbins on it as well. It was challenging to debut in Green, but I had those amazing people to coach me and guide me in a role that seemed very out of reach.

ISABELLA LAFRENIERE: What a good introduction to a new ballet! I first saw Dances as a student at the School of American Ballet. I remember enjoying the way that each color is taking on different characteristics—each has a different story that they're telling, and they're embodying the music in different ways. Apricot is very bubbly and vivacious, Pink is on her own adventure, Green is a stronger, authoritative figure. Within my first couple years in the Company, I started learning Green. I think you were probably still doing it when I was called to learn it. I remember being a fly on the wall in the back of the room, trying to pick up the steps, and that was my only experience with it. When Dances went recently, I got to learn Purple as well.

But now, taking on the opportunity to actually dance Green has been really exciting, and I've been working with [Repertory Director] Christine Redpath on it. You're trying to portray a dancer who had this illustrious, magical career, and you're trying to reminisce—”Wow, I remember when I was wearing this beautiful tutu….” There's one step where you lift your leg to the front, really slowly, and you're supposed to be showing, “I remember when I could do this big grand jeté.” That's what Christine keeps telling me.

I actually didn’t have those ideas coming into this variation—Christine has helped me explore those different facets within the choreography. Of course, the audience will have their own interpretation of what you're trying to say in this variation. There are also moments that are super flirty—you're giving your hand, then taking it away. In those moments, I always think, “Oh, the boys are trying to come after me. But I'm just gonna go on doing my own thing.”

MARIA: Green was made on Violette Verdy. She was an amazing dancer, and she had an incredible musicality and charm. There was a certain air and elegance about her. The first time I auditioned for SAB, Violette taught audition class; that was probably the only time I ever got to be in a room with her. I remember her French accent and her bubbly energy—which is so interesting, because that's not what the Green solo is about. It's very different. I'm wondering if Robbins was trying to challenge her, in a way. She had an illustrious career before she came to New York City Ballet, so I'm wondering if that's what he was envisioning—all the different companies she was with, and her unique character.

Out of all of the cast, I think Green has the strongest identity. It's hard to portray; it's not about doing things with extra energy, it's the subtle movements that make it more powerful. I think that's what Victor was trying to say to me—like you said, you come out and you're like, “To my audience, remember my beautiful foot, and this big, big, grand jeté, which I can no longer do because I have bad knees.” It's funny, because I probably would understand it better with the career I have now. At the end of the solo, Victor said to me, “When you snap and go off, it's like there's perfume—you should leave a trail of perfume behind you.” Like Violette. 

For you, Isabella, not having had a long career yet, but having had experience onstage and in principal roles, it's about finding those moments where you can relate—maybe the first time you did Swan Lake, or any of those moments that were satisfying or when you felt very accomplished. Something that you worked on that you had been dreaming about for so long, and then you finally got to do it. How did that make you feel? And how do you incorporate that into this little solo? That might help you get to that place. It was difficult for me as a young dancer to take it on. Like I said, I was probably the youngest one in the cast, portraying the oldest character.

ISABELLA: It's not a super challenging role in terms of stamina. You're walking for the most part. It's just so nuanced, though—finding how you can make these steps show what you're trying to portray has been the most difficult part. Christine has helped me gain a clearer idea for each step and what I'm trying to tell. Without those ideas, I don't think it would translate as well.

In the past couple of years, I've learned that telling a story is a lot easier for me than leotard ballets because I have a narrative in my head. Instead of hyper-focusing on the steps, I can focus on the story that I'm trying to tell, which also calms my nerves down a lot. I'm really looking forward to just going out and telling the story that I have in my head through these movements.

There's a major contrast between the solo and the walk waltz. From what you were saying, and from what Christine has said about Violette, the walk waltz feels much more like Violette. It's very bubbly. She's trying to talk to all of the men, and say, “Hi, I'm over here, are you gonna pay attention to me? Do you want to talk to me? Can we dance together?” She's like a little social butterfly.

MARIA: Originally, the only thing that Violette did in the ballet was the solo. The woman in Yellow did the walk waltz. Yellow has so much dancing already—maybe that's why it changed. But that solo was literally all Violette did, which is why it's such an iconic moment—she brought the house down, apparently, with just that one solo. It’s amazing because it's not full of technical difficulty, you're not doing fouettés, you're not doing the big jumps, you're basically telling the story of your amazing career in a minute or two.

When Victor coached me in the walk waltz, he said that in the part where you come down to the front, “It's like you're smoking a cigarette and kicking your heels up”—that was the imagery he gave me. He also told me to try the Green solo in character shoes, to walk around in it and play with it. He even said that Stephanie Saland did it in curlers once—she came out with rollers in her hair. The stories I was hearing about this solo were so interesting.

What’s hardest with these ballets sometimes is to really make them your own. Sometimes we don't get that freedom, because we're always trying to live up to someone else that danced it. I think it's really important to make these ballets your own, to bring them into the future. You have to try to keep them alive and let the audience enjoy them. Dances at a Gathering is a long ballet for a newbie. When Green comes out, they're probably thinking, “Who's this one? How much longer is this going to be?”

ISABELLA: “How many more people are there?”

MARIA: It’s your responsibility to keep everything going. Since Green comes out halfway into the ballet, it was also important to me to be in the wings for the rest of it, because you really want to feel as though you’re part of the entire thing. They don't see everyone until the end, but you need to feel everyone’s energy and get the essence of the ballet before you take the stage. And then, you come out and tell your story.

ISABELLA: One thing that's so special about Robbins is that you're dancing for each other, not for the audience. It is so important to watch your colleagues and friends perform before you go on stage, to be in the right mood and the right setting, instead of just going out there and acting like, “Oh, I'm gonna do my own thing. And then I'm gonna go off stage. And that's that.”

MARIA: There are certain ballets that create an atmosphere where you actually forget the audience is there, and Dances at a Gathering is one of them. We actually performed this ballet in Greece and we could see the Acropolis from the stage. It’s probably my favorite memory of dancing this ballet, surrounded by ruins and beautiful architecture. It created an even more special environment.

ISABELLA: I haven't had the chance to perform Dances yet, but from what I've heard, it sounds somewhat similar to what I've experienced when dancing Robbins' Piano Pieces. During the pas de deux, I felt like I was in my own world with my partner and it wasn't performative whatsoever. It was quiet. I felt as if the audience wasn't there. Robbins ballets create this environment where the dancers can be themselves and enjoy the moment together.

MARIA: In general, I felt a sense of humanity while dancing Robbins ballets, and I always wished I could conjure up that same feeling when I would do something like Diamonds or Symphony in C. The rep directors who rehearse the Robbins ballets make sure you really know what you're doing, so you're not thinking when you go out there, and you're really diving into it without having any second thoughts. Sometimes you learn the ballet for many years before you actually do it. Whether it was The Concert, Antique [Epigraphs], Brandenburg, it was really about me as a human and bringing that humanity to the stage.

Just because Green doesn't have a lot of technical challenges that you have to overcome, there are different obstacles to try to get you to that place to make it right. Isabella is going to do this the way Isabella does it. It's not going to be like me, it's not going to be like [Principal Dancer Sara Mearns], it's not going to be like Violette, it's not going to be like anyone else. And that's what's so special about these works: you can find your own interpretation and then bring yourself to it. It's an amazing opportunity for growth as an artist.

ISABELLA: It's a completely different challenge for me at this point in my career, because as you said, there aren’t those technical obstacles, but it's about bringing the imagery alive.

MARIA: Isabella, I’ll say this to you: Make sure that you really stay true to who you are. You're a very intelligent woman, and I think you're very thoughtful about your process. And I think that's what you need. Even though you haven't had this long career, like the character has, I think you know what that’s like.

ISABELLA: I always dreamed I would get to do Dances one day, so finally getting the chance is really exciting and special. It’s one of the ballets that I'm most looking forward to performing this season.


Performance photos featuring Lauren King (header) and Maria Kowroski © Paul Kolnik. Studio photos of Alston Macgill and Isabella LaFreniere by Malik Winslow © New York City Ballet.

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