After 15 years, New York City Ballet revives “Brandenburg,” the choreographer’s final ballet, with a sparkling new cast.
No choreographer wants to make a dance when he can’t really dance. But Jerome Robbins found himself in that position in 1995 when he began creating “Brandenburg,” set to a complete concerto by Bach and movements from three others. At least he had the music on his side. Robbins once said of the Bach, “It doesn’t seem like something by an old man,” and added: “He’s taking strange journeys while searching out all the things he wants to find out.”
Robbins takes a similar path. “Brandenburg,” performed on Wednesday at New York City Ballet for the first time in 15 years, is still full of life and overflowing with ebullient luster — just as it was at its 1997 premiere. Robbins died a year later.
Performed on a program with his “Fancy Free” and George Balanchine’s “Agon” — a taut, sharp performance though weirdly lit — “Brandenberg,” Robbins’s last work, remains a joyful farewell gift, sparkling with references to his own repertoire and beyond. A Robbins dance has a way of unspooling across a stage with easy, unforced abandon, and “Brandenburg” displays this with extraordinary speed and dewy sweetness as it slips between ballet and vernacular vocabulary. His dancers are people.
“In a sense, we’re all peasants in Jerry’s ballets,” the dancer and choreographer Eliot Feld said after Robbins’s death. “We come from the real world.”
The fleet-footed humans in “Brandenburg” — two leading couples and an ensemble of 16 — create choreographic constellations as they weave among one another in formations that breeze across the stage under the glow of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting. Woven together, the classical dance and folk motifs — circles, flexed heels, quick runs backward and forward — knit patterns onto the stage, almost transforming its surface into a sky of gliding birds. This is a ballet to watch, if you can, from above.
Wearing Holly Hynes’s pastel peasant-inspired costumes, the ensemble is arranged in a wedge shape as dancers gently bounce up and down in crisp pliés before brushing their legs in tendus — fundamental steps that begin any dancer’s day. It’s as if they’re firing up their engines.
Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley, appearing as the first principal couple (roles originally danced by Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal), cast their own spell: Their sunny dancing is delicate and tender, the sort that doesn’t just bring an old ballet to life, but gives a boost to life itself. When, the ensemble leaves, their pas de deux centers them in a more intimate corner of Robbins’s idyllic world. At first they pass each other center stage, but they don’t stay apart for long. Woodward draws on her theatrical imagination as she leans forward in arabesque, pushing the air away with the softest of hands.
She kneels, and Huxley walks around her; then he kneels, and she walks around him. Their connection is lasting and loving, a couple for life. But in the ballet’s second pas de deux, for Mira Nadon and Aaron Sanz (originally Lourdes Lopez and Nikolaj Hübbe), there is something more mysterious, even slightly eerie at play. Are they even really a couple? Here, there are secrets.
The stage, now almost bathed in moonlight, has them walking calmly, serenely, executing the same steps on different planes of space like sleepwalkers roaming the night. When Nadon draws a circle around Sanz’s outstretched hand with her own, it feels like she’s leaving behind a trace of herself.
Nadon’s cool, grounded glamour has an old-school appeal; because of it, my mind drifted to Tanaquil Le Clercq, the City Ballet dancer who contracted polio during a European tour in 1956. She and Robbins were close, and in this pas de deux, while there are brief moments of physical contact, the two dancers seem to be guided by their senses, lost in an in-between world. She exits first; Sanz, with a simple nobility — he is a just man, not a hero — looks on for a moment before departing into the opposite wing.
The stage brightens again as four couples converge with amiable, jovial partnering and whimsical touches, as when two women bend forward so that their partners use their backs as a springboard to leap over their bodies in a straddle before landing on the stage in a somersault. In a short pas de deux — all the dancers have a moment to shine — Dominika Afanasenkov and Davide Riccardo were breathtaking for their clean lines, their easygoing graciousness.
In the finale, the full cast returns and the energy bubbles back up again as the male leads balance their partners in arabesque before flipping them over into cartwheels. (Just as in “Fancy Free,” a dance about three sailors on shore leave seen first on the program, Robbins peppers the everyday into ballet.) They take swift, skittering steps backward while leaning forward with an extended arm, so it looks like they’re being pulled by the wind.
When others join in, drawing lines on the stage that curve and bend, it’s as if they’re sweeping it clean for the harmonious finale that ties it all together: Whirling jumps, runs and turns that build and layer as dancers spin with fervor, splinter off and dive back in for more. It’s like watching a dance that wants to live forever.
New York City Ballet
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