Once in a while you see a ballet that is so eloquent, so true to itself that the critical eye is confounded. There is no resisting it; just sit back and let it wash over you. Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering, now in the repertory of the New York City Ballet, is such a work. It is so transparent that through this one dance's complex simplicity you seem to understand what Dance is all about.
Dances at a Gathering is a very quiet ballet; everything about it, every possible meaning is whispered - as if it were happening in such clear air that sound carries a great distance. The ballet does, in fact, appear to be taking place out of doors; the enormous New York Theatre stage is bare, and Thomas Skelton has projected some barely discernible tracery of what might be foliage onto the blue cyclorama. A nonspecific "place," yet clearly one with particular meaning for the dancers who pass through it. Edward Villelia's opening solo - performed for a good part of its duration with his back to the audience - marks off the space and, in a sense, consecrates it.
The dancers are friends, lovers, people who dance with each other and only incidentally for the audience. Whoever they are, whatever they are celebrating. They dance to a continuous flow of Chopin - mazurkas, waltzes, etc. - that Gordon Boeizner probes sensitively out of a piano on the far side of the stage apron. The dancing is Polish only in the way that the music is: a suggested rhythm, fragment of melody, a quick gesture transformed by an individual creative intellect. You see a pair of hands on hips or behind the head, male hands clasping arms, feet stamping - but they are gone almost before you notice them. The vocabulary is balletic, rich and immensely clever, but made to look simple by Robbins's beautiful way of shaping phrases. Preparations are never obtrusive; girls rise almost invisibly onto pointe, as if such an action were the natural consequence of drawing breath. Contemporary ideas about art have freed Robbins to be romantic in a way that choreographers contemporary with Chopin were not ready to be. Not for them the irregularities, asvmmetries, open forms that give Dances at a Gathering its air of naturalness and inevitability. There seems almost to be an invisible wind on stage - one of those gentle, but exhilarating winds - that pushes the dance along. One of the most memorable movement motifs is just a smooth run, forward or backward.
Some of the dances are clearly personal, like a lovely solo for Violette Verdy or a passage in which Allegra Kent attaches herself insouciantly to each new man who dances through, liking her, but on his way somewhere else. Other sections are social dances-like, yet unlike, dances you have seen or done at parties. In one, for example, three girls are handed down the line of their partners. The first man slides each girl in turn along the floor in a half split, launches her into the second man's arms; he twists her gently and tosses her on to the third. She is then free to begin all over again or start something new. Certain sections reflect encounters of individuals through customary dance encounters, as when Villella and Anthony Blum circle each other in a duet that is both comradely and challenging.
Robbins has used some of the company's best dancers, and they perform marvelously for him. Some of them even look like different people. The women are Kent, Leland, Mazzo, McBride, Verdy; the men are Blum, Clifford, Maiorano, Prinz, and Villella.
Dances at a Gathering is very long, and I like that. It has the exhausting beauty of certain celebrations. At the end, the dancers all gather to watch something moving far in the distance behind the audience. A failing star? A bird? It doesn't matter.