Peter Boal, New York City Ballet’s very own prodigal son, returned to New York earlier this week to pay homage to Jerome Robbins. Just one week before the centennial of the late master’s birth, Boal, artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, shared insights into Robbins’s choreographic process at the Guggenheim as part of its “Works & Process” series. The discussion, lively and full of personal anecdotes, was illustrated by PNB dancers James Moore, Lucien Postlewaite and Dylan Wald.
The evening began with remarks from Boal, who was just nine years old when he started at NYCB. During his more than 20 year stretch with the company, Boal worked closely with Robbins, who he described as an incredible demonstrator and coach. To exemplify these qualities, Boal shared an early memory of Robbins explaining how to harness the energy needed to correctly inhabit the role of “Cupid” in Robbins’s fairy tale ballet “Mother Goose” — a part that Boal disclosed he did not want to perform (the reason for his reluctance: the large pink wings that he had to wear in front of his friends). Rather than telling the young Boal some abstract note (like “be quieter”), Robbins instructed him to imagine himself as an “Indian scout” and to think of being very careful not break any twigs under his foot when he stepped on the ground. As Boal spoke, he acted out the change as he understood it at the time, imbuing each step with enhanced energy, as if recycling that newfound energy and understanding from 1976.
It is in these moments, when narrative meets demonstration, that the “Works & Process” format resonates the most. Growing animosity towards the father held in the son’s back muscles in “Prodigal Son” (danced by James Moore); the “ghosts” newly discovered in “Dances at a Gathering” (Lucien Postlewaite); the moments of pushing the body almost completely off balance and “fracturing” the arms in “Opus 19/The Dreamer” (Dylan Ward) — all of these insights into Robbins’s choreography, offered by Boal, brought depth and understanding to the pieces when they were performed by the PNB dancers. This look into the creative process not only teaches the audience what to pay attention to, but also how to imagine the stories, the characters, and how individual performers might present these two things differently.
The evening concluded with a “lost” solo originally intended for “Ives, Songs,” which Boal and his team reconstructed from archival video recordings of Boal and Robbins running the piece in the 1980s. James Moore performed what was the first-ever public presentation of the solo, accompanied by the evening’s pianist, PNB’s Christina Siemens, who also sang stanzas from Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Good Night” as part of the piece.
Starting from the front of the stage — which Boal described as Robbins’s favorite area to begin because it brought the dancer close to the audience, almost as if he or she were emerging from the crowd — Moore moved diagonally across the floor, first by shuffling his feet along without lifting them (Robbins wanted to give the feeling that the dancer was floating on a raft), then by promenading around as if caught in an eddy, until, finally, breaking into an undulating, rapturous dive that echoed the rise and fall of Siemens’s voice, which (fittingly) closed out the evening with the lines “Farewell awhile to him and thee,/ My native Land — Good Night!”
Top Image: Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer James Moore in Jerome Robbins’s "Opus 19/The Dreamer." Photo © Angela Sterling.