Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Christine Redpath Remember Jerome Robbins | Playbill

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Classic Arts Features Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Christine Redpath Remember Jerome Robbins

New York City Ballet's repertory directors on teaching Robbins' ballet to the next generation

Jerome Robbins Martha Swope

While Jerome Robbins was known for choreography that captured the fashions and the follies of its time, his work simultaneously feels timeless. At the time of NYCB’s founding by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, its mission was to develop a truly American approach to the artform—a balletic idiom specific to the country Balanchine embraced as his new home. As such, the classicism and technical rigors of Balanchine’s Russian beginnings, and Robbins’ own extensive training as a dancer, would be brought into conversation with the art and artists of Hollywood, Broadway, and other American institutions: jazz, tap dancing, the silver screen. To these, Robbins additionally contributed his upbringing in New York City and his experiences on the bustling metropolis’ streets. “Why can’t we do ballets about our own subjects, meaning our life here in America?” he reportedly asked before creating his first ballet, Fancy Free. Choreographed in 1944 for Ballet Theatre, Fancy Free introduced the dance world to a distinctive new voice—one which Balanchine and Kirstein later incorporated into NYCB’s burgeoning vernacular.

Repertory Director Jean-Pierre Frohlich first encountered Robbins at the School of American Ballet, where Frohlich was a student beginning in 1964; he recalls that Robbins would watch class, occasionally giving the 15-year-old dancer feedback. The 1969 premiere of Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, a momentous ballet set to piano pieces by Frédéric Chopin that will be performed this spring, made a distinct impression on Frohlich: “I was shocked at the reaction of the audience. I’d never experienced an ovation like that at New York City Ballet.” While still a student, Frohlich originated the “Figure of Youth” role in Robbins’ 1972 ballet Watermill; when he joined the Company shortly thereafter, he often worked with the choreographer to experiment and sketch out ideas in the studio before Robbins would stage a new work. In 1990, Frohlich became one of Robbins’ repertory directors, assisting him throughout the creation of new ballets and, eventually, staging them after the choreographer’s death. “Our relationship grew beyond the studio,” Frohlich adds. “We became good friends.”

For Repertory Director Christine Redpath, dancing in Robbins’ works was one of the formative aspects of her career as a performer. “When I got into the Company, one of the first ballets I was called to was The Goldberg Variations [1971],” she shares. From then on, “I was kind of a Robbins dancer. He used me in many of his ballets.” After a short hiatus spent dancing with Zürich Ballet and Chamber Ballet USA, then staging works for former NYCB Dancers Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Chautauqua Institute, Redpath was asked to return to NYCB and become one of Robbins’ repertory directors. As she describes, the choreographer wanted to speak with her first: “I met him backstage at a performance, and he sat me down and said, ‘Well, Chris, I think this could be a good fit. But you know, I’m kind of difficult,’ and I just burst out laughing—‘Yes, I happen to know that. But let’s give it a shot.’” For Redpath, Robbins’ demeanor was symptomatic of the pressure he put on himself, particularly as he worked through multiple iterations of a new ballet—a process that could be grueling for everyone involved, even as it produced some of the Company’s most cherished pieces. Redpath’s time with the choreographer in the rehearsal studio, as well as performing his repertory when she was dancing with NYCB, informs her current role bringing Robbins’ work to today’s dancers, both in the Company and worldwide. “I am just thankful to be keeping this legacy alive with JP [Frohlich]."

Roman Mejia, Harrison Coll, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez in Fancy Free Erin Baiano / New York City Ballet

What does that legacy entail, beyond the steps themselves? “Robbins ballets are wonderful for helping young dancers to develop,” says Frohlich. “When I teach his ballets, I always say, ‘I’m giving you the box, or the parameters, but you wrap the box. Come in with some ideas.” This readiness to impart his knowledge of the choreographer’s oeuvre—and the dancers’ enthusiastic embrace thereof—is a steady source of inspiration for Frohlich as new generations rise within the Company’s ranks. Interplay, Robbins’ 1945 follow-up to Fancy Free, takes the stage this spring after a five-year absence, along with Glass Pieces and Other Dances. “When I would travel to stage his pieces, I would call Jerry and ask, ‘What version do you want me to teach?’” recalls Frohlich. “He would say, ‘The version that looks best on them.’ When you teach his ballets, you’re always rethinking and reinventing. It’s as though you’re experiencing the piece for the first time, even though you’ve staged or danced it before. You’re teaching another generation or another group of dancers, and different ideas come.”

“Working with Jerry, you became more of your authentic self, and you learned to trust that onstage,” Redpath explains. “He wanted his intentions strictly maintained through his steps and his musicality. But at the same time, after that was in place, he would encourage the dancers to peel away the layers of what they think it is to perform these ballets, and to get them to find their true selves. He wanted that honesty. It creates an intimate space, and we as the audience are privileged to observe it.” Both Redpath and Frohlich remark on the extraordinary coincidence that two creative titans like Robbins and Balanchine were working with and choreographing on the same company for decades, contributing inimitable works to New York City Ballet’s repertory and to the enrichment of the artform as a whole.

In a 1964 interview for Show: The Magazine of the Arts, Robbins told writer Robert Kotlowitz, “When I was a child, art seemed like a tunnel to me. At the end of that tunnel, I could see light where the world opened up, waiting.” For the dancers learning and performing his ballets, and for audiences new to his work or long familiar with the choreographer’s singular style, such a tunnel leads brilliantly to the future of ballet as it unfolds on the stage today.

Madelyn Sutton is an arts and culture writer based in Asheville, North Carolina.

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