Jerome Robbins was so much a master of entertainment in ballet and on Broadway that many of his admirers were disappointed when he showed a need to experiment. Especially in the years 1969 to 1972, as he recommitted himself to ballet after 25 years of Broadway success, he made new efforts at seriousness and extended structures. For some, this showed a new maturity that made him seem, during a shining era for dance, the most marvelous choreographer of the moment. Others found this later Robbins to be grandiose and pretentious.
In âWatermillâ (1972), he made a prolonged essay in Asian-related dance drama thatâs surely the least dancey piece of his long career. Its premiere was greeted by boos and cheers alike. Some have always found it soporific, but itâs a piece that merits reconsideration, influenced by both Japanese Noh drama and the theatrical productions of Robert Wilson. Teiji Itoâs sparse music employs Asian instruments; the dÃ©cor features three vast sheaves of rushes or hemp. The work was made for New York City Ballet, which revived it every so often until 2008.
Now, impressively and touchingly, itâs been reimagined as a chamber piece by the choreographer Luca Veggetti. Whereas it used to project into the breadth and depth of the New York State Theater (todayâs David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center), this week it plays to an audience seated on three sides of the stage at BAM Fisher, with no one more than a few rows away. Instead of City Ballet dancers, here itâs performed by students from the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, SUNY. On the backdrop, a single large crescent moon is stationary, whereas in City Balletâs production it changed and traveled. The small Japanese paper lanterns, tiny beside the vast sheaves, that dancers used to hold are now glass-like bulbs illuminated by electricity.
Though these aspects have been lost or altered, I nonetheless like the intimacy of this reconceived version. You can even say that it rescues âWatermill,â which in its 2008 revival made no great impression, by reconfiguring it at closer quarters.
âWatermillâ is a memory ballet. The role of the protagonist â who either moves in slow motion or is still for long periods â has always been given to an experienced powerhouse dance hero: Edward Villella in the original production, Nikolaj HÃ¼bbe earlier this century and now Joaquin De Luz (less than two weeks after his retirement from City Ballet). Photographs of Mr. Villella still show how mightily he projected in a vast theater.
Mr. De Luzâs stillnesses are often poignant. As he sits or lies at the side of the stage, the others dancing at the center seem to be people heâs recalling, in numbed pain, at his lifeâs end. His mouth, face and stance take on a gaunt quality. Weâre distanced from him even while he remains a focal point. And when he strenuously waves two vast rushes in the space above him, he seems to be wrestling with his own thoughts.
Although âWatermillâ has none of the humor of Samuel Beckett, it has the layerings of Beckettâs âKrappâs Last Tapeâ: At least two other male dancers seem to be versions of the protagonistâs younger self. One of these conducts an intensely erotic pas de deux with a woman not only slowly but with freeze-frame emphasis: This registers as the heroâs coolly dreamlike recollection (very âKrappâ) of an encounter that was once supremely important.
Thereâs enough here to demonstrate Robbinsâs mastery â weâre shown different kinds of time, various layers of space, in a drama like little else in ballet. Although I still donât think itâs one of Robbinsâs great works, itâs good to see it again: It exemplifies his admirable willingness to go where he had not gone. There are other Robbins pieces â notably âMother Goose Suiteâ (1975) and âIves, Songsâ (1988) â that I hope do not fall into neglect. They should still show fresh aspects of his skill that extend our idea of dance theater.