Dance companies around the world are celebrating the centennial of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins’ birth. Miami City Ballet is no exception, but the company has an advantage that many others don’t.
Artistic director Lourdes Lopez danced for Robbins for 23 years at New York City Ballet, where he shared ballet master duties with George Balanchine. She retired from the stage in 1997, a year before Robbins’ death.
“Jerry remains years after his death the greatest American choreographer because he worked in so many different media,” she said. She’s eager to expand the company’s Robbins repertoire.
Robbins reinvigorated dance and musical theater with his character-driven, deeply human, all-American approach to dance. He also worked in film and television.
His legacy includes the works Miami City Ballet will perform Friday through Sunday in its all-Robbins tribute at the Kravis Center. The program will feature the company premieres of Circus Polka, The Cage and Other Dances as well as In the Night and West Side Story Suite.
Jean-Pierre Frohlich, who worked with Robbins for more than 50 years, first as a dancer and then as his assistant, coached the dancers on the pieces.
Before Robbins, most ballet was “stuffy” and disconnected with the real world, Frohlich said. “He couldn’t relate to that. He wanted to talk about now and what was happening in America. He wanted people to relate to dancers as human beings.”
Robbins’ dances were all about relationships, Frohlich said. “You don’t dance to the audience. You don’t show off. It’s like the audience is looking through a keyhole.”
In the studio, Robbins was a perfectionist who could reduce a dancer to tears.
“He envisioned the dance and the role in one way,” Lopez said. “You had to find that part of yourself that fit in that role and not express yourself individually.”
Harsh as his behavior could be, “it was always done to make the piece better,” she said.
With most choreographers Lopez might have been apprehensive about devoting an entire program to their work, she said. “With Jerry, no matter what I pick they’re all different.”
She chose Circus Polka to open the show because it’s celebratory and fun. The short piece, which is set to music by Igor Stravinsky, features 48 girls from Miami City Ballet’s school mimicking circus elephants as Lopez, acting as ringmaster, snaps out commands.
Robbins played the ringmaster in the 1972 debut. Lopez is the first woman to do so.
In the Night features three couples dancing to Frederic Chopin nocturnes under a starry sky. Each couple represents an aspect of love: innocent, mature and stormy.
The Cage is Lopez’s most daring choice. “It’s the only one that caused me to sweat,” she said.
That’s because the ballet, which is set to Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra, is a discomfiting portrayal of a hive of females who prey on their mates. “We had to have The Cage,” she said. “It’s so different. No one has done anything remotely similar.”
Robbins choreographed Other Dances in 1976 as an extended duet for ballet stars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. Set to Chopin mazurkas and waltzes, it features an on-stage piano. “The highlight is the pas de deux,” Frohlich said. “It’s quite beautiful.”
Based on the groundbreaking Broadway musical, which Robbins conceived, directed and choreographed, West Side Story Suite tells the show’s story in an economical 35 minutes. It requires dancers to act and sing and calls on them to dance differently, more low to the ground, as opposed to ballet’s upward thrust.
Frohlich advised the dancers to watch how people move in everyday life. “When you walk, I don’t want a ballet pose,” he told them.
The dancers have embraced the challenge, Frohlich said.
Dancers have been doing that with Robbins’ choreography for decades. “You always felt special to be in a Robbins ballet,” Frohlich said.