Saturday’s Gala at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center had a relaxed, laid-back feel that matched the hot, humid evening, but the outdoor setting and sticky weather didn’t stop the crowds from dressing up for the occasion. Nor was the event lacking in star power: Rita Moreno, who played “Anita” in the film version of West Side Story, was the honorary chairperson. Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins gave her a warm welcome, and then she happily shared an anecdote from her WSS audition: apparently, she nailed the acting and singing parts, but was quite rusty on the dancing.
Rita Moreno in the film version of West Side Story, photographer unknown
The program featured three of Robbins’ most unique ballets, and with contrasting themes, music, and choreography, they captured the diversity of his repertoire. Regal and classic best describe the opening of Brahms/Handel, which Robbins co-choreographed with Twyla Tharp in 1984 to Brahms’ “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel”, but it quickly shifts gears and becomes distinctly Tharpish. In fact, Tharp’s contributions to the piece are more noticeable than Robbins’, even though they supposedly split up the work, with Robbins choreographing for the dancers in blue and Tharp choreographing for the green team (the blue and green dancers really do become competitive teams as the ballet progresses). Perhaps the piece is more strikingly Tharpish because she took more risks with the dancers – for example, women carried overhead or upside down across the stage, or tossed from one group of men to another – while Robbins was working in a more classical framework, with the opening of the ballet showing his blue dancers in a symmetrical arrangement, all in fifth position. So why would such a Tharp-dominated ballet be included in the all-Robbins Gala? I think Brahms/Handel indicates Robbins’ willingness to collaborate and open himself up to fresh choreographic ideas, particularly since he and Tharp worked on this piece the year after George Balanchine died. And although the blue and green teams are distinctly separate at first, they eventually meld together, indicating a unification of Tharp and Robbins’ ideas.
Sara Mearns and Jared Angle, the principals in green, performed a pas de deux that was initially dramatic but became playful and flirtatious later on. The most memorable moment occurred as Mr. Angle sliced his arm across Ms. Mearns’ neck as she leaned backwards, as if he were chopping off her head. It was one of those bizarre Tharp moments that I won’t even attempt to put into context, since moments later the two looked joyful and clapped their hands overhead. The dancers shined in their roles, with Ms. Mearns looking particularly radiant. Ashley Bouder as the principal in blue showed off her pure technique and sustained balances, and later was more flirtatious as she flew through lightning-quick footwork. Adrian Danchig-Waring, Tiler Peck, and David Prottas stood out among the soloists for the vibrancy they lent to their performances.
Wendy Whelan in costume for Opus 19/The Dreamer, Dance Magazine 2003, by Josef Astor
Just before the second piece on the program started, I spotted some lightning in the distance, and the air had reached an almost unbearable stillness that comes with summer heat waves. I was prepared for a thunderstorm, which probably would have enhanced the haunted qualities of Opus 19/The Dreamer, but the theater remained silent throughout the piece. Gonzalo Garcia, as the dreamer, appeared meditative and detached from the corps of twelve dancers in dark blue. He repeatedly spun around with his head tilted to one side and his eyes closed, conveying his desperate search for something beyond his community. He was mesmerized by Wendy Whelan as she mysteriously emerged from a cluster of dancers, and in their pas de deux, there were contrasting moments of calm and chaos that reflected changes in Prokofiev’s mysterious “Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major”. Garcia and Whelan moved seamlessly from sharp, wild movement to airy, flowing delicateness. In the past, I always believed that the dreamer follows the woman into her world, but this time, there were instances where Garcia seemed to sweep Whelan into his own world, literally spinning her into his arms. This speaks to the range and depth of their performances. Both dancers were utterly captivating and other-worldly. I never tire of watching Opus 19/The Dreamer, especially when it is performed by such gifted dancers.
NYCB dancers in West Side Story Suite, photo by Paul Kolnik
During the second intermission, the woman sitting in front of me remarked that she didn’t know anything about the choreography for West Side Story Suite, the final piece on the program, but she was happy to at least know the story line and some of Leonard Bernstein’s melodies and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. This was probably the case for many audience members. Presenting a more dance-centered version of Robbins’ 1957 musical was an appropriate way to end the performance, providing the audience with top-quality dancing to accompany the familiar story. Although there are individual roles in this piece for “Anita”, “Riff”, “Bernardo”, “Tony”, and “Maria” (whose role is the least memorable), it is the ensemble dancing that stands out and best captures Robbins’ talent for choreographing on large groups. There is nothing quite like the sheer energy and competition between the Jets and Sharks when they dance the mambo in “Dance at the Gym”. The brightly colored costumes – yellows and blues for the Jets, and deep reds and purples for the Sharks – designed by Irene Sharaff contribute to the distinctions between the two gangs. Benjamin Millepied danced energetically as “Tony”, but he needed to convey more hopelessness and frustration over his doomed love. Georgina Pazcoguin was unstoppable as “Anita”, but she overdid the singing in America and the result was strained. In fact, even the singing from the professionals, who stand on the side of the stage, was flat. However, Andrew Veyette, who played “Riff”, sounded impressive in Cool, which features some of the most rhythmically interesting choreography for the Jets. Adrian Danchig-Waring and Austin Laurent were particularly eye-catching. After an entire season of continually being wowed by their performances, I wonder why these two dancers are still in the corps.
The Gala ended with a colorful display of fireworks and dancing on the lawn. The large amphitheater wasn’t completely sold out, but I was happy to see that it was mostly filled. Hopefully such a superb and thoroughly enjoyable performance of some of Robbins’ best ballets convinced the audience to continue supporting NYCB’s summer residency at SPAC.
A view of the SPAC amphitheater from the lawn, photo by Evan