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Anytime would be a good time to devote a dance program to the works of Jerome Robbins, our most versatile and celebrated American-born choreographer. But, given that 2018 marks the centennial of his birth and the 20th anniversary of his death, Miami City Ballet honors his legacy opening the year with an all-Robbins evening at the Arsht Center.
“I wanted to expand the repertory, bringing in more works from such an important person in my life,” says company artistic director Lourdes Lopez, who danced in many of Robbins’ creations while at New York City Ballet, the choreographer’s longtime base. “It was easier than expected to do this program. Jerry’s ballets can be so different. And this gives a broad view of who he was as an artist.”
Periodically MCB has staged a handful of Robbins works, and two of them return for this occasion. Ever-popular, West Side Story Suite distills the drama of the Broadway show in select song-and-dance sequences, letting performers lift voices as well as bodies to the familiar Leonard Bernstein score. Chopin nocturnes inspire the elegance of In the Night, where three couples portray contrasting versions of romantic love—newfound, wistful, or tempestuous.
Chopin was also the choreographer’s composer of choice to show off—in four mazurkas and a waltz—the interpretive genius of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova at their peak. Other Dances now comes to MCB as a company premiere.
“I fell in love with this ballet the first time I saw it and always held out hope I could dance it someday,” says Simone Messmer, the principal ballerina performing Other Dances alongside Renan Cerdeiro on opening night. “What’s most challenging about it,” she emphasizes, “is not technical tricks like hard jumps but pulling yourself smoothly through the simplest transitions.”
Bringing Chopin’s deep-hued compositions to life through solos and duets requires impeccable musicality. “I see this really as a pas de trois, with the pianist as the third partner in performance,” Messmer says, particularly inspired by having company music advisor Francisco Rennó at the keyboard.
Jovani Furlan, who’ll be partnering Tricia Albertson in Other Dances on Saturday, shares Messmer’s enthusiasm. “I listen to the music and don’t go over the top.” Even the more athletic moves, he understands, must come across as easefully poetic rather than punched-out.
Furlan values how he can take that thoughtful approach beyond Other Dances, including tackling In the Night’s first duet paired with Emily Bromberg—an alluring interpreter—to embody love in fresh bloom. Jean-Pierre Frohlich coached the company not only in that Chopin-nocturnes ballet but also in an eye-popping antithesis to such neo-romanticism: The Cage, another MCB first.
“When audiences first saw this,” says Frohlich, “they were taken aback. It was so ahead of its time. You watch it as if peering into a display case at the zoo.”
Robbins had long been captivated by Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for strings, with its eerie key-shifts and throbbing progressions, before he settled on the 1951 scenario for The Cage: a lethal all-female society in the guise of creepy-crawlies, recalling spiders or praying mantises. Intrusive males, two of which enter here, do not meet a happy ending.
Their murders occur at the hands—or rather, pincers—of a novice, danced by Nathalia Arja in a most unusual molding of her classically trained body, affecting curved fingers and thrust-out hips. “I love edgy roles,” confesses the ballerina, “but I’ve never done anything as strange as this.”
From her insectoid birth to the fulfillment of her colony’s mission, Arja’s novice transforms a tentative limbering up into crushing moves as she hones her killer instinct. Along the way, she woefully falls in love with one of her victims, but in this realm that’s just extra seasoning.
Compelling the novice in her duties, Jordan Elizabeth Long plays the Queen. “I have to put a lot of power into this—like no one’s going to get past me,” she says. “Steps are commanding, the movement so hungry! After the first kill, my dancing shows how proud I am of the novice. And, when I come back after her love pas de deux, I’m ready to pounce. It’s as if I’m grooming her to be the next queen.”
Frohlich admits the style of this ballet is difficult, demanding an unwavering mindset and physicality as much from the ensemble as from the leads. “Everyone’s quite drained at the end,” he observes. “But the women love to dance this.”
Light years away, on another female universe, spins Circus Polka. Cute but also crafty, this will delight fans of dances such as “The March of the Royal Children” from The King and I—a musical Robbins also choreographed for stage and screen. But even a grinch would smile upon this parade of 48 student ballerinas from the MCB school. They stream in and whirl about in color-coded tutus, according to size and skills, under the imposing gaze of the Ringmaster, originally played by Robbins for NYCB’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival.
Now MCB turns up the fun for its Circus Polka debut. Director Lopez will take over the Robbins part, the first time a woman dons the top hat and boots, brandishing a whip. “This is really not about gender issues,” she stresses. “I just wasn’t available for previous Robbins celebrations, and it’s my way to thank him.” And that’s the kind of gratitude everyone can cheer.
Miami City Ballet Program Two, Jerome Robbins, The Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd.; Jan. 12 through Jan. 14, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets $25 to $105; www.miamicityballet.org.
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