'Like he was going to live forever': Making Jerome Robbins' last ballet

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'Like he was going to live forever': Making Jerome Robbins' last ballet
Mira Nadon and Aarón Sanz during New York City Ballet’s rehearsal of Jerome Robbin’s “Brandenburg,” April 27, 2023. His exuberant “Brandenburg,” which returns to City Ballet this month, was made near the end of his life, when he was physically and emotionally frail. (Mark Sommerfeld/The New York Times)

by Roslyn Sulcas



NEW YORK, NY.- Jerome Robbins wasn’t feeling well in winter 1995. He had created “West Side Story Suite” — a condensed adaptation of his 1957 hit Broadway musical — for New York City Ballet earlier that year and started work on a new pas de deux with two principal dancers, Lourdes Lopez and Nikolaj Hübbe. By December, it was clear that he needed heart surgery. In the next months, he began to show symptoms that suggested Parkinson’s disease and had a bad fall that affected his balance.

Nonetheless, he continued to work with City Ballet on a new dance over the next two years. “I can’t show them what I want them to do so they all move around with stiff-legged movements imitating me and not my intentions,” he wrote to a friend, choreographer Andy de Groat. “It’s such very hard work for me now.”

In 1997 — on Jan. 22, the birthday of George Balanchine, City Ballet’s co-founder — the new ballet, “Brandenburg,” set to a selection from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, finally made its debut.

The 40-minute dance offered a bucolic idyll — a playful, youthful group, sporting with charm and what looks like spontaneity. The reviews were enthusiastic — “Choreographically, he has outdone himself here,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times — as were audiences. Robbins took a solo bow to rapturous applause.

But “Brandenburg,” last danced in 2008, fell out of repertory. On Wednesday, it will return after a 15-year gap.

“I don’t know why it wasn’t done for so long,” said Wendy Whelan, the company’s associate artistic director and one of the original principal dancers in the work. “I know that Jerry thought it wasn’t quite complete, and perhaps that influenced things. But for me, after COVID, I think these big group ballets are so community building, a protein for the company.” Robbins, she added, “really shaped us as American dancers.”

In his physically and emotionally fragile state, Robbins may never have felt that the ballet was really finished. Its creation was long and difficult for him and for many of the dancers. “Jerry was taking medication for his heart, his memory was lapsing, he could barely move,” said Jean-Pierre Frohlich, who assisted Robbins.

“He would have something in mind that he couldn’t necessarily express clearly to us,” said Benjamin Millepied, in the original cast, “and if you couldn’t see it, he lost patience. There were months of showing the work to different people in the studio. I suppose he was used to a Broadway process of workshopping and workshopping.”

“What’s amazing is how young looking and exuberant this ballet is,” said Frohlich, who is overseeing the revival. “Mr. Balanchine did all these dark, morbid ballets toward the end of his life. Jerry was going on like he was going to live forever.”

But Robbins died 18 months later, on July 29, 1998. “Brandenburg” was the last ballet he created.

Looking back, his eye for talent and potential was remarkable. The principals who created the ballet now all run major companies: Whelan (with Jonathan Stafford, the artistic director) at City Ballet; Lopez is the artistic director of Miami City Ballet, Hübbe of the Royal Danish Ballet, Peter Boal of Pacific Northwest Ballet. The ensemble of 16 included the future principals Millepied, James Fayette, Sébastien Marcovici and Jennie Somogyi and future choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.

In video calls, the two pairs of principal dancers talked about their memories of Robbins, and of creating the ballet. Here are edited excerpts.

Lourdes Lopez and Nikolaj Hübbe

HÜBBE: He started with this pas de deux for us, and I think he had a clear idea about what he was going to do with it, the idea that we wouldn’t touch each other. He actually choreographed it quite fast. It had this very slow rhythm, almost hypnotic. Usually he would have 20 versions of everything, but this was what it was very early on. He didn’t tinker with it.

LOPEZ: I remember wondering whether this was a workshop or would it be a larger piece? There was no discussion about any of that. Jerry usually came in and gave you a synopsis of the ballet, or really quite specific nuggets about his intentions or ideas, but here he really didn’t.

But he knew what he wanted from us. I remember a moment, when our hands circle, but don’t touch, and he said “like ‘Giselle.’” And at the beginning we enter separately, and he said, “Don’t acknowledge Nik; just walk past him.” Right from the get-go there was an understanding that these were two souls passing each other.

HÜBBE: There was this thing of not being able to connect, crossings where we might get together but miss one another. You are so close, you can feel the heat from the other person’s hands. It was like static electricity between us.

Jerry could be tough, but when he was putting those steps on us he was very humble, very vulnerable. “Do you like this? Is it good?” You wanted to hug him.

LOPEZ: He wasn’t gentle when the corps came in, but he had deteriorated quite a bit physically by then. The group stuff was hard for him because he was frail, mentally and physically. We had versions A, B and C of the finale and he would say, I want to see half version A and half C. It was very confusing, and he would get angry with the younger dancers, many of whom were very inexperienced. But it was really because he didn’t feel in control. I felt he was understanding he wasn’t going to be around much longer.

Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal

BOAL: Jerry would sometimes pull people in to work on projects, and you didn’t know if it would lead to anything. But it was an honor. By the time Wendy and I came in, he had made the pas de deux with Lourdes and Nik, and perhaps that gave him the confidence that there was something there.

WHELAN: I felt in those rehearsals like we were in a sketchbook and our bodies were the lines. He sketched and erased, made drafts, then collaged them. Like I was a piece of wire he was twisting and making shapes out of. He was playing with that bendy quality I had.

BOAL: Some partnerships were obvious, but ours wasn’t. But I think Jerry saw a way our bodies and styles were complementary while being very different.

WHELAN: We were a juxtaposition, a puzzle to fit together. He was very comfortable with the four principals. He knew we liked to chew on the work and he could take as long as he wanted.

He was more tense when there was a crowd. We were very aware that he was feeling his age, and the younger dancers were perhaps less sensitive to an old person’s struggles. They would giggle about him or get nervous, which he hated, and that would make them more nervous! Every now and then, we had to send a dog into the studio, because he turned into a happy person with a dog.

BOAL: With the dance for the four couples, there were dancers called in, lined up like lemmings! One cast would be tried out and not invited back, another and then another. Around that time he had fallen off his bike and had balance issues; he was so angry he couldn’t demonstrate the movement as he wanted to.

But funnily enough I think some of the best choreographing was in that dance for eight. The material flowed; in the end he probably made 90 minutes of choreography and used 40. I think he was really in his head. He could feel his mortality, his body failing. He was always obsessive and self-defeating about his genius and his work. This was his first real premiere in years, and I think he felt this giant monster of greatness hovering over him and that he couldn’t meet it.

WHELAN: The stakes were high. He probably knew it was his last creation; he wanted everything to be perfect and masterful.

BOAL: I remember him struggling to put a bow on the finale. Peter [Martins, the company’s leader at the time] came in to see 45 minutes of material and said: “You did it, you have a ballet! We could give you another year, but it’s been two already.” Peter was right; if he had waited another year, it might not have happened. I admired Peter for that hard decision and Jerry for taking the advice. And he really did pull off a major premiere. You can debate the merits of the ballet, but it felt wonderful.

WHELAN: I remember Jerry laughing and saying “Champagne bubbles” during the finale. He wanted us to be running, jumping and swimming in the music, being joyful and alive.

What Jerry brought to us was: Don’t act, be real, be you, nothing fake. The human spirit is what we want to see, and that’s where beauty lies.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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