Pacific Northwest Ballet struts its Jerome Robbins stuff

Droll send-ups and Bernstein-scored brio recall the exuberant, formative years of American ballet.
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From Jerome Robbins' <i>Fancy Free</i>. (Angela Sterling)

Droll send-ups and Bernstein-scored brio recall the exuberant, formative years of American ballet.

Seen in performance as part of an all Jerome Robbins evening at Pacific Northwest Ballet (through June 8 at McCaw Hall), Fancy Free, the first ballet choreographed by Robbins, is a charming and witty dance, but far from a great one. Nevertheless, it has been a popular staple in the repertoires of American ballet companies for many years since its creation in 1944.

So what is the big deal about Fancy Free, and why did American audiences give it 20 curtain calls at its premiere, and then fill over 100 straight performances?

The ballet is the tale of three young sailors on shore leave in New York City during World War II. They find a Times Square bar, chase and compete for two young women, and generally behave like many testosterone-laden young men far from home. The dance dates from the formative years of American ballet when young artists were working to create their own artistic identity, compatible with but separate from European classical traditions. The oldest American company, San Francisco Ballet, started as an opera ballet in 1933, followed in 1939 by New York's Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater), Robbins' company at the time he created Fancy Free.

It was the first work by Robbins, a giant figure in American performing arts in the 20th century not only in ballet, but the many stage musicals he helped create as choreographer and/or director, such as West Side Story, Gypsy, Pajama Game, and Fiddler on the Roof. Fancy Free also marked Robbins' first collaboration with another titan of the last century, Leonard Bernstein, who composed the ebullient score. Only a few months earlier, the young Bernstein had a huge public success, stepping in at the last moment without rehearsal to replace the ailing maestro Bruno Walter as conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

In the score for Fancy Free we hear the themes and tonalities that Bernstein was later to use to great effect in his Broadway and concert music, and the same holds true for Robbins' choreography. The dance integrates ballet vocabulary with more vernacular material such as theatrical gestures, naturalistic actions like walking and running, and social dance - particularly the wonderful rhumba sequence presaging the great mambo number (the dance in the gym) in West Side Story.

Robbins was a life-long observer of movement in its many manifestations, and it shows in this work. It also didn't hurt to have more than a dash of sex. At one point a sailor places his hand upon a woman's breast, which she decorously, but firmly removes. This combination of attributes, unusual for their time, allied with the contemporary theme of the ballet - American youthfulness and optimism in a time of war -- caused a sensation.

Fancy Free was so popular that it spawned a successful Broadway show, On the Town, which amplified and expanded the New York experiences of our three heroes, fleshing out their characters and giving them not two, but three young women with whom to share their adventures. A few years later, in 1949, the show inspired a Hollywood version, featuring Gene Kelly (the brash), Frank Sinatra (the shy), and Jules Munshin (the silly). All this added to the original ballet's luster, though Robbins did not do the choreography for the film, being credited only with the "idea."

Fancy Free, perhaps because it is the first work of the gifted young Robbins not yet on top of his craft, has individual movements and phrases that are a bit awkward or not quite filling the rich Bernstein score but therefore leave room for performer interpretation and nuance. Casey Herd, Jonathan Porretta, and Josh Spell, the three gobs, were technically sound but a bit short in the verve, cockiness, and theatrical flair that brings life to the dance. The camaraderie felt somewhat forced, the character portrayals not clear enough. The two female leads, Noelani Pantastico and Louise Nadeau, did just fine, but without the counterpoint of strongly defined sailors, the ship never got up to full steam.

Far more successful was the company's performance of The Concert, a work originally created for the New York City Ballet in 1956 to the music of Chopin. It was inspired in part by the archly Gothic humor of cartoonist Edward Gorey, famous for his New Yorker cartoons, who devised the painted drop we see as the curtain opens, but which soon flies away leaving Gorey gone.

The score is played on-stage by pianist Dianne Chilgren, with an occasional assistance from the fine PNB orchestra under the direction of Allan Dameron. It is Chilgren's "concert," but the real action comes from the many delightful and daffy characters in attendance, among them a cigar chomping husband dragged there by his culture-vulture wife, an ethereal music lover, a shy poetic type, and two pretty young things, all seated on folding chairs which get shifted around in many imaginative ways. At one point in a gravity-defying moment, the ethereal type remains seated well after her chair has been snatched away by a rude late-comer.

Not only do we get Robbins' droll send-up of the behavior of "high art" types, but also their imaginary lives, inspired and let loose by the music. This leads to some wonderful and bizarre sequences with dancers carried on and off stage as so much baggage, the husband seeking murderous revenge on his wife only to see it backfire, a corps de ballet with someone always out of synch, and the cigar chomper, now turned into a butterfly like some 19th century Romantic-era ballerina with her little wings, leading everyone in a whacked out big ballet war horse ending.

Everything flies by quickly, some things no more than brief and inspired stage crossings by a performer or two. The PNB dancers seem to be having a ball with it all.

What's blissful about The Concert is that we can see all of Robbins under one roof - musical theater genius, master of ballet, lover of natural movement, vaudevillian, and modernist. Perhaps the most stunning segment of all has groupings and regroupings of dancers under umbrellas moving around the stage until all are crowded under the one remaining open bumbershoot. Simple, inspired, and poignant, this is elegant choreography without need for dance technique, one facet of the genius that was Robbins.

The third work on this all-Robbins evening was In the Night set to Chopin nocturnes. Choreographed in 1970, it was made early in Robbins' last stage of creative activity when he retired from musical theater and returned to work exclusively for New York City Ballet. In the Night has three couples depicting various stages of romantic love. Most notable for their performance were Arianna Lallone and Stanko Milov. Austere, elegant, fully engaged, and costumed in beautiful shades of gold and brown, they artfully evoked the late autumn of years spent together.

It is welcome news that PNB plans to premiere two more Jerome Robbins works next season, Dances at a Gathering, and West Side Story Suite, a re-staging of Robbins' dances from that epic musical. How nice to think that in place of one of their post-concert discussions, PNB might treat their audiences to a lesson in the mambo.

"All Robbins" continues at Pacific Northwest Ballet through June 8.


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