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Fall 2015


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Wendy Lesser

The Goldberg Variations,
choreographed by Jerome Robbins
to music by J. S. Bach.
New York City Ballet,
Lincoln Center, May 2015.

It starts with the curtain lowered. To the left of the stage, spotlit, a single musician sits at her piano and begins to play the first of the thirty-two sections that make up Bach’s timeless masterpiece, the quiet, delicate “Aria” that functions as the theme from which all the subsequent variations derive. Midway through this initial theme, the curtain rises on two dancers, male and female, who are fancifully garbed in eighteenth-century-style costumes. In slow, stately steps, they move downstage toward us, at first exactly mirroring each other’s gestures but then adding in small modifications and rhythmic variations of their own. The tiny differences are a warning: what we are looking at will change before we even have time to register what we’ve seen, and seeming repetitions will never be exact copies of what came before.

The dance that comes forth over the next hour-and-a-quarter is far too complicated to grasp fully—you would have to see it a hundred times to notice everything, and even then parts of it would escape you—but though it begs for close attentiveness, The Goldberg Variations is never a chore to watch. New felicities arise at every moment; Robbins’s inventiveness feels unmatched, except by Bach’s. It is one of those rare cases (Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, il Pen-seroso, ed il Moderato is the other that springs instantly to mind) when a choreographer’s genius does full justice to the great piece of music on which it builds. It took tremendous chutzpah for Robbins to tackle the Bach, and I would have predicted, if asked beforehand, that his sensibility would have been insufficient to carry it off. I’d have been dead wrong, and the piece itself taught me why. Prior to watching The Goldberg Variations, I tended to class Jerome Robbins with his musical collaborator Leonard Bernstein, as the kind of brilliant creator who aspired to “high art” forms but whose talents actually lay in the demotic mode. But after seeing what he did with the Bach, I almost think the opposite. Nothing Robbins ever did, not even the wonderful West Side Story, can touch the intensity and delirious excitement of this piece.

If you own a recording of the music, you may wonder how the dance can last nearly eighty minutes when even Glenn Gould’s glacial pace results in a performance time of about half that. Suffice it to say that Robbins takes every possible repeat—and in the hands of the excellent pianist Susan Walters, who accompanied both the performances I saw last May, that length nonetheless managed to convey a feeling of sprightliness. Walters paused just enough between sections to indicate the transitions, but not long enough to accommodate applause, which had the lovely side-effect of instilling silence (for the most part) in the otherwise overly demonstrative ballet audience.

The seamlessness of the performance was helped along by the way Robbins deployed his successive waves of dancers. For instance, before the Baroque couple had even finished their theme, a trio of dancers in modern dress wandered onto the stage to watch. As the first variation sounded on the piano and the initial couple drifted off, the modern trio in turn began to dance. Such transitions were key to this piece: unlike the downtimes that punctuate many traditional ballets, the transitions here were part of the dance. Sometimes a single dancer continued from one segment into the next; occasionally three or even four stayed on, thus blurring the distinction between movements at the same time as they emphasized differences in mood. As the dance progressed and the variations got more complicated, you couldn’t even say for sure how many dancers occupied each of the separate parts, because a group of six might suddenly be doubled by another six, or a soloist be joined by a trio, or a set of four augmented to ten and then diminished to four again, all while the music swept onward.

Pleasing symmetries vied with equally pleasing asymmetries, as when a solo woman danced before six men, or three male dancers successively partnered four females. At one point fifteen dancers separated into five intertwining trios, then broke apart into gendered groups of seven and eight. Yet these constantly shifting numerical patterns never felt rote or imposed, because the dominant force behind every step, every arm gesture, every inclusion of a new dancer was the music itself. It was all perfectly in keeping and at the same time continually surprising. The steps and gestures derived from ballet but not solely from ballet: there were also discernible elements of courtly dance, Russian folk dance, mime, jazz, and all sorts of other things. The profusion was never excessive; the bravura dancing was never just showing off. It was all necessary, though in a way that felt like a free and unforced gift.

There was no distinct break at any point in the dance, but just past the middle things began to alter. Some-where around variation sixteen or seventeen, a new form of costuming entered in, and the men—who up to then had been wearing casual, modern T-shirts and tights, to go with the women’s light, simple skirts—began to appear in ruffled shirts. The eighteenth century, banished since the opening number, was starting to seep back in. A little while later the women’s clothes too started to change, with firm V-shaped bodices defining their upper bodies. And then came the seeming finale, a gloriously thrilling passage for twenty-eight dancers dressed in full eighteenth-century mode, a dance so complicated that it appeared to touch on everything that had come before—from full-circle celebration to male-female partnering to crossing, weaving diagonals and jointly coordinated high lifts—and so satisfying that this time everyone applauded at its end. And yet it was not the end, for it was followed by a final movement featuring the first couple, now dressed in modern clothes, who recapitulated the initial theme in a recognizable but slightly different way. The circle had closed, and we had all arrived at the meeting point: of past and present, of Bach’s music and Robbins’s choreography, of everything that makes dance at its best eternally alive and yet hauntingly ephemeral.

When the dance was over, that first time, I turned to my husband and he turned to me and both of us wore expressions that said: Where has this dance been all our lives? I have been going to dance for my entire adulthood—a period which began at just about the time this work premiered, in May of 1971—and yet I had never before seen The Goldberg Variations, never even heard a word about it. Granted, it takes a major ballet company to put it on, one with a very deep, strong corps as well as enormously talented soloists. (Tiler Peck was particularly outstanding in the cast I saw, but really, everyone onstage performed beautifully.) Obviously not every season can accommodate an eighty-minute piece involving thirty dancers. Still, cost can’t be a major factor. The New York City Ballet has the dancers, after all, and only needs to hire the one musician. There are no sets whatsoever, and the costumes, though evocative, are not at all elaborate. So why hasn’t this brilliant piece of dance been appearing with some regularity at Lincoln Center?

I asked some dance-going friends about it, and the ones who had seen The Goldberg Variations—mainly way back in the Seventies— remembered liking it a great deal. But some of them also recalled feeling slightly abashed about their affection, as if they had fallen for something rather louche. At first I attributed this to Robbins’s reputation as a Broadway song-and-dance man, or perhaps to his lower-on-the-totem-pole relation to the sainted Balanchine. But then (thanks in large part to Deborah Jowitt’s and Amanda Vaill’s informative biographies of Jerome Robbins) I discovered the dirty truth: the exceedingly influential critic Arlene Croce had panned The Goldberg Variations when it first came out, calling it “ninety minutes of hard labor” and accusing Robbins of having “wrestled every last musical repeat to the mat.” This response so misreads the actual experience of being at the dance—so misses what is thrilling and uplifting and tremendously moving and above all hugely pleasurable about it—that I can only conclude she was in a very bad mood the night she saw it. Or else she had a tin ear for Bach. Or else she hated Robbins.

Not my problem, anyway. As a critic myself, I have long since learned to disregard what other critics say about the things I love. In this case, I immediately got myself another pair of tickets and we went back a week later to see the whole thing again. It was at least as wonderful the second time, but the repeat, far from satisfying me, only whetted my appetite anew. Even if I saw The Goldberg Variations every year for the rest of my life, I doubt I could ever tire of it.

Wendy Lesser, the editor of The Threepenny Review, has been awarded an NEH Public Scholar grant to write the biography of the architect Louis Kahn.


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