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Two recent ballets performed at New York City Ballet begin with walking. Not the noble, pointed-toes, ballet way of walking, but normal, kids-off-the-street, heel-first walking—sauntering, striding. Both are by Jerome Robbins.
In the context of a ballet stage, this is startling. In Glass Pieces, people cross the space as though they were at Grand Central Station. In N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, restless teenagers walk down front and look at the audience like, “What’s it to you.” (Robbins made this in 1958, a year after West Side Story.)
NYCB in Robbins' Glass Pieces. Photo by Paul Kolnick, Courtesy NYCB.
Each time the Grand Central crowd scene happens—it begins by the same girl in a coral-colored skirt walking from downstage right toward the center—a little stop, or skip, or turn is added to the walking. The random pedestrian traffic gradually transforms into real choreography. Robbins' choreography builds along with the music so beautifully and legibly that it reminds you what a master craftsman he is.
In the second, more serene section, the people side-stepping far upstage in silhouette keep hauntingly in time with the low end of the music. Meanwhile the two leads stretch and ooze to the high end. (Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention to the exact instrumentation.) The third and final section bursts into a new dynamism with men bounding across the stage in geometric patterns. But all the way through, the rhythmic synergy between the choreography and Glass' music is potent.
N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz has many more sections, and each tells a story. Some of them start with walking, but in a different mood each time. With Georgia Pazcoguin as the resident bombshell, the sexuality of the adolescent characters sizzles. The big side extension lifts (just like the Sharks in West Side Story), the crouched-down grapevine, the playful pelvic thrusting, are motifs that thread throughout.
Members of NYCB in Robbins' N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz. Photo by Paul Kolnick, Courtesy NYCB.
When a performance starts with walking, we identify immediately with it because we all (or most of us) walk. Robbins knows how to take you from the simple fact of walking into a whole range of emotions. We don’t have to make a leap into the world of European courts or any other time-gone-by era right in order to feel it. And so when the leaping does happen, we’re there, we’re with the dancers.
NYCB in Robbins' N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz. Photo by Paul Kolnick, Courtesy NYCB.