Review: City Ballet Salutes Jerome Robbins, a Master of 2 Realms

New York, New York! A portion of “Something to Dance About,” which Warren Carlyle put together from Jerome Robbins’s musicals (here, “On the Town”).

For almost 50 years, the choreographer Jerome Robbins made works for New York City Ballet. Now that his centennial is upon us, the company is celebrating with a flood of Robbins revivals this May.

There will be 20, but this is actually too few. (In 2008, the company staged 33.) Still, the celebration also includes new Robbins-inspired productions by post-Robbins choreographers; two of them had their premieres on Thursday at the company’s gala, “Robbins 100,” alongside three Robbins revivals. The first was Justin Peck’s “Easy,” to jazz-style music (“Prelude, Fugue and Riffs”) by Robbins’s long-term colleague, Leonard Bernstein. The second, “Something to Dance About,” compiled and rearranged numbers from Robbins’s choreography for Broadway musicals, with direction and musical staging by Warren Carlyle.

The evening was graciously introduced by the ballerina Maria Kowroski, the company’s senior principal. When she remarked that she was now the only dancer in the troupe to have worked with Robbins (1918-98), who present could not feel a pang? The links to the master are growing fewer. (And the company is now being run by a four-person interim team, all under 40.)

There followed an evocative short film that interleaved film clips of Robbins at work, often with his voice-over, with footage of today’s company in revivals. As many actors do, he spoke of his search for truth.

Truthfulness, a touchstone for Robbins, inevitably became a criterion when watching the Robbins tributes. My complaint about Mr. Peck’s “Easy” is that I didn’t believe it for a moment. A light Robbins pastiche for six young dancers all in sneakers, dressed by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme in lurid combinations of pink, yellow and blue, “Easy” imitates the caricature-type emphasis of early Robbins. Stephen Powers’s scenery — a modern urban cartoon of conflicting messages — goes distractingly far along the same lines. Robbins had a genius for catching the raw energy and vulnerability of American adolescents as if from within; in this piece, Mr. Peck stays on the outside.

“Something to Dance About” is a sampler, a collage of quick tasters from multiple Robbins stagings, from 1944 to ’64: “On the Town,” “Billion Dollar Baby,” “The King and I,” “Peter Pan,” “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “Funny Girl” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” My response alternated between succumbing to the charm and emotion of some numbers and finding others too short and externalized. City Ballet’s dancers — including nine principals — gave it terrific energy and precision. I look forward to seeing further nuances at later performances, and I record that several items from “The King and I” and “West Side Story” already made me tear up, hard and fast. (As a child, I grew up listening to these numbers on LPs.)

There’s considerable skill in the way Mr. Carlyle loops all these numbers together. This can be briefly disconcerting: It’s Maria and Tony from “West Side Story” who begin the polka that becomes “Shall We Dance?” for Anna and the king of Siam from “The King and I.” But that suggests that these separate shows are part of a single, overlapping, larger realm: which becomes the larger point of “Something to Dance About.”

At its conclusion, characters from different shows come onstage and stand while Jessica Vosk sings “Something Wonderful.” This Rodgers and Hammerstein song becomes an anthem for Robbins, still notorious for the many hurts he delivered in rehearsal (“He will not always say what you would have him say”) and still beloved for the many human truths of his art (“But now and then he’ll say something wonderful. … He has a thousand dreams”) — even before a photograph of Robbins, smiling, is projected on the backdrop. (The photo is gratuitous: We know for whom these artists are standing still.)

The sheer understatement of the Bach solo “A Suite of Dances” (1994) is one of Robbins’s greatest assets. The dancer often marks, hints, waits; and he shows how the mere lift of an arm can ideally catch the end of a musical phrase. This is a crayon sketch by a master: Robbins knew when to pare away — and when suddenly to fill a dance to the brim.

The performer was Joaquin de Luz, who has been coached here by the piece’s original dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has also coached this season’s coming revival of “Other Dances” (1976). Mr. Baryshnikov is one of a few City Ballet alumni who have been invited back for coaching this year. I hope someone asks him and others to work on “The Four Seasons” (1979), a diverse and robust exercise in grand-ballet display that shows, not pervasively but often enough, Robbins’s grasp of the allure of high classicism.

Though “Circus Polka” (1972) is danced to Stravinsky music by dozens of children from the School of American Ballet and the principal Ask la Cour, it’s a perfect example of Robbins’s showbiz flair. You talk not of its steps but of its timing, formations and engagingly cheeky humor. Mr. La Cour plays the roles created by Robbins himself: the ringmaster who cracks the whip.

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