I had never laughed out loud at a ballet before I saw Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering and The Concert at Pacific Northwest Ballet last weekend. Both pieces had me grinning and swooning, but for different reasons.
Dances at a Gathering, which is considered Robbins's masterpiece, follows five couples as they dance-flirt with each other over the course of many vignettes.
The show famously begins with a single man simply walking onstage accompanied by no music. Then the Chopin kicks in and he starts to create a dance. He tries a twirl, strikes a few poses, and ramps up into a jump. It would look like he was just experimenting with steps in his apartment if not for the giant blue sky blazing behind him. This juxtaposition of a single character dancing in front of an abstract azure background reinforces the existential questions written all over the dancer's face. What is he doing here? How should he move? What are any of us doing here? How should we move with each other?
Once he leaves the stage, a quick succession of couples follow him. In their free-flowing, gauzy costumes the men all look like casual Shakespeares and the women all look like Disney princesses on a day off. The existential tension melts into a pure late-twenties party atmosphere. A mix of ballroom and classical movements govern the choreography. The dancers look like they're having fun, like they're dancing the kind of steps they would create if only they could escape the old repertoire.
At one point Seth Orza and Sarah Ricard Orza perform a pas de deux that looks like a newly acquainted couple walking through a park in the evening. Their whole sequence trembles with the million indecisions of young love. He turns with her as she turns but doesn't support her in her turns. At one point she rises from a flat foot to tiptoe and nervously dances away from him while they're walking arm in arm, as if she's afraid to commit to this new thing. They fucking killed it and earned my gold medal for the night. Ditto Noelani Pantastico, who seems born to have a bunch of irreverent fun onstage.
If Dances at a Gathering is too meditative and meandering for you, The Concert (or, the Perils of Everybody) will wake you up. Edward Gorey did all the scenic design, and the story's just as humorously macabre as all his scratchy horrors.
The premise is simple: an audience arrives at a hall to see a piano concert. As the piano plays, they begin to act out their day dreams. There's a murder, a suicide, a nag, a scene involving lots of umbrellas, and a swarm of pissed off butterflies.
The show is also full of self-referential slapstick humor. There are tons of genuinely funny moments alive with the genius of Buster Keaton, but the most hilarious reoccurring bit involves the male dancers folding up the female dancers and carrying them offstage like camp chairs. The joke pokes fun at the essential function of ballerinos in some ballets. Everybody's timing is immaculate, but I clapped especially hard for Lesley Rausch, Ryan Cardea, and Angelica Generosa.
The joy in Robbins's choreography goes beyond the pleasure of seeing pedestrian movement presented with the extraordinary grace of PNB's dancers. In both shows, Robbins is making the argument that we're always dancing, even though we don't always realize we're doing it. Sticking a hand out the window to check for rain, walking with a new love through the park, eating ice cream, opening the door for someone—they're all dance steps. And we all make those moves in slightly different ways, which is part of what makes everyone else so cool and fascinating and strangely attractive. If we're lucky, every once in a while we find someone who can dance comfortably alongside us. Which is nice! So go see the Jerome Robbins festival with someone like that! Or go alone! Whatever! It's good!