In 1956, Jerome Robbins’ first balletic engagement with the music of Frédéric Chopin premiered on New York City Ballet: The Concert, or the Perils of Everybody. Chopin’s work would play a significant role in Robbins’ career, with one of his most beloved works, Dances at a Gathering, featuring another selection of the composer’s pieces for solo piano; less than a year after Dances took the stage in 1969, another ballet set to Chopin, In the Night, debuted. Finally, in 1976, Other Dances premiered at a gala benefiting the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Robbins clearly found much to be explored within Chopin’s sometimes folk-inflected, often elegant piano compositions; the themes of the three latter works, as hinted at by Robbins in contemporaneous comments, were concepts like love, peace, “flower children,” romantic relationships, community; ultimately, Robbins would reiterate, the ballets were “about” the music itself. With The Concert, Robbins made the act of engaging with this music the theme—or rather, the joke.
In the program notes for The Concert, Robbins writes: “One of the pleasures of attending a concert is the freedom to lose oneself in listening to the music. Quite often, unconsciously, mental pictures and images form,” inspired by what the listener hears. In a way, Robbins is describing something like his own creative process; the “mental pictures” inspired by Chopin’s works became what would be performed onstage. He continues: “Chopin’s music in particular has been subject to fanciful ‘program’ names such as the ‘Butterfly’ Etude, the ‘Minute’ Waltz, the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, etc.” While these provide imagery for the costumes, and much of the potential for play, Robbins extrapolates from this further to highlight the humor in the audience members’ behavior as well. Anna Kisselgoff writes, for The New York Times, “...the deeper one looks into ‘The Concert’ the clearer it is that Mr. Robbins is actually divorcing the music from the popular imagery with which it has been burdened. Humans do the fantasizing, not abstract sounds. In the end, ‘The Concert’ is about human foibles—a fact that explains the universal response that greets it.”
“Robbins was very good at observing his surroundings,” says Repertory Director Jean-Pierre Frohlich, who is currently coaching The Concert. “He always wanted to find truth in things, and meaning. In Fancy Free, it’s the same thing. He would be out in New York when he noticed there were always three sailors together—they never went in pairs. He would go to the bars and watch them dance, and he would pick things from what they were doing and put them into his piece.” In a way, The Concert provides a bridge from the true-to-life characters and theatricality of Fancy Free, Robbins’ choreographic debut, and the later Chopin works, which while remaining similarly tied to “truth” and “reality,” depart somewhat from the concrete specificity in these earlier ballets. “Even though there's no story [in Dances at a Gathering], there is a story, in a funny way—a sense of community, a sense of young love, a sense of many, many things,” says Frohlich. “Even though he always said it's just ‘dancers dancing,’ eventually he had to find ways to put all these little dances in order so the ballet made sense, so that there was never a lull.”
As audience reactions attest, The Concert is free of such lulls, inspiring laughter—and recognition—despite the intervening years. “What he would always say, and I say this to the dancers, is that the situations are funny—if you play it for real,” explains Frohlich. “If you're in the situation, it's going to be funny. You don't want to be slapstick. It's not vaudeville. It's real characters that you want the audience to identify with.” Exploring just what makes The Concert work is essential this winter, as the majority of the cast—save two dancers, Frohlich says—are new to the lead roles they’ll be taking on.
“When I first got into the Company as an apprentice, I was in The Concert immediately, but I did the ‘Butterfly’ section and ‘Rain,’ and I got to do the ‘Mistake Waltz’ a couple seasons later,” recalls Soloist Alexa Maxwell, who, along with Principal Dancer Mira Nadon, is debuting in the role of the Ballerina. “I remember watching [former Principal Dancers Sterling Hyltin and Maria Kowroski] over and over again, and dreaming of doing this part.”
“I've also been watching a video of Maria,” adds Nadon. “She was really, really great in this role. And she's also a taller dancer, so I've been enjoying her interpretation. And she's so naturally funny. I feel like I have a lot to learn from the way she approached this ballet.”
How has Frohlich gone about coaching these new dancers in such a role, where the challenge lies more in managing the “humor” of the ballet than the complexity of the steps? “If you ever watched Robbins rehearse The Concert, you saw each character in his eyes—he would be those characters,” he says. “I try to become each character. I tell the dancers, first, watch me, what I'm doing and how I'm doing it, and then try to mimic it. Then you'll find your own little nuances to it. You have to actually think of yourself as an actor more than a dancer in this ballet.” As both Nadon and Maxwell note, they don’t have many opportunities to portray a character in this way, particularly outside of the larger narrative works the Company performs. “JP is so great at giving you a backstory to think about—there are a lot of layers to the characters,” says Nadon. “But he also says, ‘You need to just do the steps; be your character, but don't do anything extra.’ That's the fine line of making sure that the character reads, but not going overboard and making it cheesy.”
“It's important to not only act a certain way, but to almost believe that you are that character, and just play it really naturally,” agrees Maxwell. “I've been in this ballet for years, but what surprised me the most is that even though it's not the most technically demanding role, it's so incredibly detailed. It's actually quite difficult to get right, because everything has to have the proper timing and the right intention, and you can't overdo it, but you can’t under do it, either. Making sure that it's done in the right way is actually super tricky to get right.”
“Robbins ballets need to be rehearsed and well-coached for it to work,” concludes Frohlich. “It's all about the process.”
Photos by Malik Winslow © New York City Ballet.