New York City Ballet’s “Seasons” program presented two distinctly different works that exemplified the choreographic breadth of Jerome Robbins. The dark, meditative Watermill uses the seasons to convey the passing of time and the different stages in a man’s life, while The Four Seasons is a spirited personification of winter, spring, summer, and fall.
Before seeing Robbins’ 1972 Watermill on Saturday evening, I had heard plenty of words associated with this ballet: controversial, long, boring, unnecessary. I think anything defined as controversial is worth seeing, and although this ballet was definitely too long and at times rather boring, I’m still glad I saw it. There is little action throughout this hour-long piece, which presented several fragments – albeit critical ones – in a man’s life. Changes in the moon’s phases conveyed the passing of time. The stage was bare except for three large bundles of wheat and a golden moon on the backdrop. Nikolaj Hubbe, guest starring in the main role, appeared on stage, and after at least ten minutes of walking ever so slowly, he stripped down to his underwear and then sat in the corner of the stage, perhaps reflecting on his existence as the ballet began to illustrate excerpts from his life. The audience saw young boys running with kites, women harvesting wheat, a not-so-subtle sexual encounter (probably the most risqué choreography I’ve seen in NYCB’s repertory), and a young man being attacked by a beast.
(Jerome Robbins’ Watermill, photo by Paul Kolnik)
Robbins used Noh, ancient Japanese drama that is characterized by poetic, slow-moving plays, as the backbone for Watermill. Every gesture, every action, is done incredibly slowly and with purpose. In the lead female role, Kaitlyn Gilliland spent at least ten minutes untying her robe, removing her hair from a towel, and then repeatedly brushing her hair. Perhaps the slow movement and passing of time contributed to the ballet’s dramatic effect, but after a certain amount of time – twenty minutes or so – this device wore thin. The ballet could have been just as effective in a lot less time. It is worth noting that the music for Watermill was played by six musicians who sat at the corner of the stage, playing a variety of bamboo flutes called Shakuhachi. Also of interest: This ballet apparently received a lot of boo’s on opening night, February 3, 1972. On Saturday, I heard a few during the curtain call, as well as several remarks about how “boring” and “ridiculously long” it was.
After such a sluggish and depressing opening to the program, The Four Seasons was a breath of fresh air. With music by Giuseppe Verdi, this large-cast piece portrays each season with a lead couple and corps of dancers. Winter shivered and frolicked about trying to keep warm. Megan Fairchild, Antonio Carmena, and Sean Suozzi – in the leads – all looked a little stiff in their upper bodies, but perhaps they were attempting to convey chilliness in the air? Nevertheless, they were entertaining and cheeky. Spring was a slow waltz, danced beautifully by Sara Mearns and Jared Angle. While the jumping quartet of men that accompanied them was sprightly and full of zip – the way that spring should be – the pas de deux for Mearns and Angle didn’t seem fitting for spring. In fact, I think that Robbins’ personifications of Fall and Spring were mixed up. Spring should have been livelier and more buoyant (at least for the lead couple), while Fall should have been slower, with less perkiness. In Fall, Ashley Bouder’s circle of pirouettes was precise and full of energy, and Daniel Ulbricht’s jester-like jumps were a crowd-pleaser. Bouder and Ulbricht are two of the most technically capable and thoroughly entertaining dancers in the company, so it’s a joy to see them in any role. However, they both seem more suitable for personifying Spring than Fall, but this has more to do with my own choreographic ideas for these seasons than with the ballet itself. Summer was accurately sleepy and sultry. Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle captured the mood of this season with their grounded movement and deliberate heaviness, and she ended asleep on his knee.
The Four Seasons embodies a classicism that is more closely associated with Balanchine, and this ballet does, in fact, look like a piece that Balanchine could have choreographed. It is pleasing to the eye and humorous at times, but not one of my favorites of Robbins. However, next to Watermill, it’s delightfully refreshing.