Not Alone in the Moonlight
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The works of art that outlive their back stories are the ones that affect generations. Jerome Robbins’s “In Memory of…” – revived this season at New York City Ballet – falls into that category.
The ballet made its debut in June 1985, two years after the death of George Balanchine. The lead ballerina, Suzanne Farrell, was nearing the end of career (she retired in 1989). And the piece was set to Alban Berg’s “Violin Concerto (to the Memory of an Angel),” which had its own story: In 1935, Berg set aside work on his opera “Lulu” in order to write this composition after hearing that the young daughter of a close friend had died.
Last week, New York City Ballet danced this treasure from the repertory for the first time since 2001. But knowledge of the past is not mandatory: “In Memory of …” remains searingly emotional and never saccharine.
Though the piece features no clear narrative structure, the action moves from the dance of happy couple (Wendy Whelan and Seth Orza) with friends, to a dance with death (Ms. Whelan and Charles Askegard), to transcendence (ensemble). As with many Robbins works, there is a sense of humanity in the gestures: walking, sighing, curling into the fetal position, falling into the arms of others. It all seems to express something real, whether that reality is Berg’s, Balanchine’s, or your own.
This is a testament to Robbins’s abilities, but also the talents of the current dancers. Last Thursday, Ms. Whelan unfurled her most lithe and unselfconscious style for the happy days. She slipped almost imperceptibly into the role of a resigned, sorrowful creature when death arrived. Mr. Askegard is somewhat of an unusual choice for this role, but he danced it with an excellent combination of force and reserve. He was steely and demanding of attention. It’s a side of him we don’t often see – and could use a lot more of.
Mr. Orza and the ensemble join Ms. Whelan for the conclusion of the piece. Now, hair down, the group takes on a feeling of being in the hearafter and yet still present. The relationships still matter. The feelings are still there, but the world has changed.
You can project what you want onto this ballet – or just watch the movements. You read the history – or leave it in the past. Either way, “In Memory Of…” is a work that combines beautiful steps, heart, and music. For any audience in any era.