A Robbins Rarity, ‘Watermill,’ Reimagined as a Chamber Piece

A Robbins Rarity, ‘Watermill,’ Reimagined as a Chamber Piece

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 “Watermill” (1972), he made a prolonged essay in Asian-related dance drama that’s 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 it’s a piece that merits reconsideration, influenced by both Japanese Noh drama and the theatrical productions of Robert Wilson. Teiji Ito’s sparse music employs Asian instruments; the décor 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, it’s 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 (today’s 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 it’s 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 Ballet’s 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 “Watermill,” which in its 2008 revival made no great impression, by reconfiguring it at closer quarters.

“Watermill” is a memory ballet. The role of the protagonist — who either moves in slow motion or is still for long periods — has always been given to an experienced powerhouse dance hero: Edward Villella in the original production, Nikolaj Hübbe 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 Luz’s 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 he’s recalling, in numbed pain, at his life’s end. His mouth, face and stance take on a gaunt quality. We’re 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 “Watermill” has none of the humor of Samuel Beckett, it has the layerings of Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”: At least two other male dancers seem to be versions of the protagonist’s 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 hero’s coolly dreamlike recollection (very “Krapp”) of an encounter that was once supremely important.

There’s enough here to demonstrate Robbins’s mastery — we’re shown different kinds of time, various layers of space, in a drama like little else in ballet. Although I still don’t think it’s one of Robbins’s great works, it’s good to see it again: It exemplifies his admirable willingness to go where he had not gone. There are other Robbins pieces — notably “Mother Goose Suite” (1975) and “Ives, Songs” (1988) — that I hope do not fall into neglect. They should still show fresh aspects of his skill that extend our idea of dance theater.

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