Long before Dances at a Gathering, Jerome Robbins appreciated the folly of attaching Chopin to anything that hinted at gauzy romanticism – ballet being the most prominent example. In fact, he devoted his 1956 comedy The Concert (at NYCB this spring) to the very subject. But a decade later, the choreographer was taking the measure of “Judson Church [venue for radical dance happenings] and the rest of the avant-garde,” he told the New York Times. “Just what is the matter with connecting, what’s the matter with love?” he wondered.
Chopin, spinning mazurka and waltz in myriad emotional and musical directions without ever breaking the thread, served as Robbins’ inspiration for Dances at a Gathering’s plain, even obvious foundation. To a stream of short pieces by the composer, the 10 individuals in the hour-long ballet flirt, compete, seduce and ruminate, all in the name of “connection”. In duets, trios, sextets or alone, they dance as friends, rivals and real or imaginary lovers. They dance their idea of us and of themselves as performers. Sometimes they move in unexpected unison, as if by tacit agreement. Occasionally the scene widens and they seem to be flung up helplessly before unbounded nature, or at least the theatre’s backdrop of immense blue sky.
In Dances at a Gathering, character is built into the steps as much as into the music. But it takes the dancers to bring it out, which the recent, rising crop of New York City Ballet principals and soloists did magnificently in the ballet’s first outing this year. With company pianist Susan Walters’ chiming lucidity and joyous brio coursing through them, they appeared utterly spontaneous yet committed to each mercurial moment. They moved with astounding fleetness without skirting feeling.
In particular, Sara Mearns fell under a mesmerising spell of attraction for Dances newcomer Adrian Danchig-Waring, who matched her unwavering regard. Megan Fairchild – freer than usual in the upper body without slackening her feet’s exceptional pluck – and Tiler Peck shaded in the steps in a persuasive progression of mood as the music darkened. Dances at a Gathering, though, shone throughout.