Celebrating Jerome Robbins at the JCC

Ellen Sorrin, Jock Soto, and Robert Fairchild in costume for Fancy Free – photograph by Evan

On Monday evening, thanks to the generosity of my friend Sarah, I attended a special seminar at The JCC in Manhattan on the life and work of choreographer Jerome Robbins, with a particular focus on his contribution to New York City Ballet. The event, which was facilitated by the JCC and NYCB, featured a discussion between Ellen Sorrin, who is on the advisory committee of The Jerome Robbins Trust, and former NYCB principal dancer Jock Soto. The audience got to see some rare footage of Jock in studio rehearsals with Mr. Robbins. Additionally, brief excerpts from two of Robbins’ ballets, The Concert and Fancy Free, were performed by NYCB principal Sterling Hyltin and soloist Robert Fairchild, respectively.

Jock Soto and Sterling Hyltin in costume for The Concert – photo by Evan

The evening began with Ellen discussing the significance of heritage for Mr. Robbins, who was born in 1918 to Russian-Jewish parents. Although he wrote in his diary in 1939 (when he was about twenty) that his dance classes “shall be my daily worship”, his connection to his roots was more pronounced later in his life and often played a part in the ballets he created. It was interesting to hear Jock reflect on his heritage in a similar way. When he arrived in New York as a teenager to study at the School of American Ballet, he “became a New Yorker overnight”. As a dancer in the company, he said, “My church was the New York State Theater”. It wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he reflected on his heritage – he’s half Navajo, half Puerto Rican – and returned to the Navajo reservation where he was born and where his parents lived. Dance, for both Robbins and Soto, seemed to serve as religion, but eventually, both men found their way back to their roots.

Jock talked at length about the rehearsal process for Robbins’ West Side Story, in which he was cast as the original “Bernardo”. Both the video footage and Soto’s comments indicated that it was an often stressful and tiring process in which Robbins always asked his dancers for more. He demanded that they become their characters – that Jock Soto, as Bernardo, despise Nikolaj Hubbe as Riff. This was extremely challenging since the two are good friends. Just when Jock was about to boldly tell Robbins that he and the other dancers were fed up with rehearsals for the ballet, Robbins announced to the cast that they had to rise to Jock and Nikolaj’s level, stunning the two dancers beyond belief. Robbins was, according to Jock, a very intuitive individual.

Jock Soto, Sterling Hyltin, and Robert Fairchild – photo by Evan

After treating the audience to the simple sailor’s solo in Fancy Free, with Nancy McDill at the piano, Robert Fairchild talked about the significance of the role. This is the innocent sailor. He’s awed by the size and glitter of New York City, always looking after his friends, picking up the bill at the bar, and occasionally getting picked on by his pals. Fairchild was charming, moving with ease and fluidity, and truly embodying the good-natured quality of his character. Jock, who taught Robert at SAB, looked on with pride, and later declared that watching his students become gifted company dancers was gratifying. In an excerpt from The Concert, Sterling Hyltin was endearing and funny as the “mad ballerina”. She literally embraces the piano and becomes so immersed in the music that she doesn’t realize that someone has lifted her chair from under her while she is clutching the piano.

The evening ended the way it began, with a discussion of the significance of dance for these artists. Sterling pointed out that “dance is a constant in our lives” and a critical part of her identity, while Jock remarked that a dancer has to fully believe in what he or she is doing in order for a performance to be effective. He noted Wendy Whelan, saying, “She believes in every step she takes”. As a teacher at SAB, Jock said he always tells his students that they can’t get away with faking anything on stage. Robert agreed, adding that performing is one of the most rewarding parts of being a dancer. The high he achieves from dancing for an audience makes it all worth it.

Jock Soto, Sterling Hyltin, and Robert Fairchild – photo by Evan

Listening to Jock talk about his experiences working with Mr. Robbins, and then watching Sterling and Robert – both young, sophisticated dancers who represent the next generation of NYCB – perform excerpts from his works exemplified the lasting impact that the choreographer has had on ballet. The Concert and Fancy Free, both of which I saw in their entirety this season at NYCB, continue to look fresh and appealing. It was clear that Robbins demanded a lot from his dancers when creating new works for them, but his persistence and dedication resulted in a diverse array of ballets that are an essential part of NYCB’s repertoire and truly cherished by the company’s current dancers.

Many thanks to Sarah for inviting me to this unique and memorable event. Please do not use photos without permission.

This entry was posted in ballet, Dance, Dance writing, Education, Jerome Robbins, New York City, New York City Ballet, Photography, Reviews, Robert Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, wendy whelan and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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