Throughout his long and prolific career, choreographer Jerome Robbins found fertile creative inspiration in the piano works of composer Frederic Chopin.
“We think of Chopin when we think of Robbins,” said Jean-Pierre Frohlich. “Chopin sang to Jerry, and touched something in his Russian roots, even though Chopin was Polish. There’s something about the humanity of the music that really spoke to him.”
Frohlich would know. Robbins was at the peak of his powers when Frohlich joined the corps of the New York City Ballet in 1972. As he rose up the company’s ranks, Frohlich became closely associated with Robbins’ works, and later became Robbins’ assistant, overseeing company productions and staging the choreographer’s work all over the world.
One of those Chopin ballets, the moody and romantic “In the Night,” will be the centerpiece of a program that Moves, the New York City Ballet’s touring arm, will present at Northrop auditorium in Minneapolis on Saturday evening.
Many Americans recognize Robbins for his work on Broadway as a director/choreographer, where he made his imprint on such instant classics as “West Side Story,” “The King and I,” “Gypsy” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” amassing five Tony Awards, plus two Oscars for the film version of “West Side Story.”
But his great love was the ballet, first as an accomplished dancer and then as gifted and influential dancemaker. Robbins died in 1998 at age 79.
His artistic home was the New York City Ballet, where he worked alongside co-founder and ballet master George Balanchine, the two of them forging the foundation of the company’s neoclassical repertory.
Robbins first turned to Chopin in 1956 with “The Concert,” a comic ballet that is truly funny. When he came back to the company in 1969 after an extended absence, Robbins once again immersed his imagination in Chopin.
The effort started small, a duet. But as ideas began to pour out of him, Robbins added more of Chopin’s mazurkas and waltzes, and more dancers, until he had created a suite of sorts with a cast of 10. He invited Balanchine to take a look.
“And Balanchine encouraged him to continue,” Frohlich said. “He told him, ‘Go, you have carte blanche.’ ”
That was the genesis of the radiant “Dancers at a Gathering,” an instant sensation and probably Robbins’ signature work.
But he wasn’t finished with Chopin. Several months later, Robbins was back in the studio, this time concentrating on a more modest proposition: four of Chopin’s nocturnes.
“There was some music that he loved that he didn’t use for ‘Dancers at a Gathering,’ ” Frohlich said. “It became ‘In the Night.’ What’s nice about ‘In the Night’ is that it’s totally different from ‘Dances at a Gathering.’ ”
Different in that it’s essentially a series of portraits, with three couples depicted at various stages in their relationships.
“The first couple is about young love,” said Frohlich. “The second couple is mature, kind of bourgeoisie. They have their routines. The last couple is in love, but they’re clearly having a quarrel.”
At the ballet’s conclusion, all three couples converge, congregating in what could be interpreted as a starlit park. They acknowledge one another, share a kind of conversation, then go their own separate ways, into the night.
That’s the assumption, anyway; Robbins never really articulated his intentions. (“I can never say what a dance means; I can’t concern myself with anything that’s not movement,” he said in a 1971 interview.) He preferred to suggest a framework constructed solely through Chopin’s atmospheric music.
“What’s amazing to me is that Jerry is creating a scenario, a mood, without it being a story,” Frohlich said. “And what Jerry was really fantastic at was making the audience understand the relationships of the dancers onstage.”
The ballet was a hit with audiences and critics. (“A splendid showcase for six stellar dancers,” decreed Robbins biographer and Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt.) And dancers.
“It’s special in the way that ‘Dances at a Gathering’ is special, in that Jerry created a community,” Frohlich said. “There’s no story, just dancers dancing for each other, and with each other. If you forget that the audience is there, it works, it creates an intimacy. The public becomes a fly on the wall, watching something evolve as they peek through the keyhole.”
Robbins created more than 20 ballets after “In the Night,” and although he went on to explore the worlds of other composers — most notably Bach — he wasn’t done with you-know-who.
“I’m still fascinated by the music of Chopin,” Robbins said in an interview a month after “In the Night” made its debut. “It keeps opening up further avenues for me, so there is more to come. I may do another work first, but I’ll be back to Chopin.”
He remained true to his word. Six years later, Robbins made his ebullient “Other Dances” for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova.
On the road
New York City Ballet is a mammoth operation, with 90 dancers and 65 musicians. Which is why the company reserves most of its performance schedule for its custom-built home, Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. That’s where Moves comes in.
“Moves was a dream for [company ballet master in chief] Peter Martins to bring New York City Ballet to parts of America, without going to the expense of bringing the whole company,” Frohlich said.
It’s the second Minneapolis gig for Moves (the first was in 2012), and for this visit, Martins is sending 20 dancers and musicians to perform “In the Night” plus four other small-scale, travel-friendly works.
“Sonatine” dates to 1975. It’s the program’s sole Balanchine work, a sumptuous duet with an onstage pianist that’s set to Maurice Ravel’s “Sonatine for Piano.”
French contemporary dance choreographer Angelin Preljocaj created “La Stravaganza” for the company in 1997, a past-meets-present mix of Vivaldi and electronic music.
The haunting, gravity-defying pas de deux from “After the Rain” is an audience favorite, created by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in 2005 to music for single piano and violin by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
“In Creases” is the program’s newest title. Danced to the first and third movements of “Four Movements for Two Pianos” by Philip Glass and featuring a cast of eight (and two pianists), this highly geometric work was created in 2012 and is the first ballet created for the company by Justin Peck, now New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer.
Along with working for 27 years as the ballet master who shepherds the company’s Robbins repertory, Frohlich is artistic administrator of the Moves tours. He’s also an increasingly precious commodity in the ballet universe: an all-important bridge to the era when Balanchine and Robbins, two of the 20th century’s most influential artists, were making one masterpiece after another in New York City Ballet’s rehearsal studios.
“They were so different, but it worked because they were different,” Frohlich said. “Jerry would see talent in young dancers that Balanchine didn’t see until they danced a Robbins ballet. But that was Jerry. He would get things out of dancers that Balanchine couldn’t, and vice versa.
“For me, I’m so happy that I was part of the generation of the ’70s and ’80s and early ’90s. I wouldn’t change any part of that time.”