“Dances At a Gathering” is a ballet choreographed in 1969 by Jerome Robbins for the New York City Ballet. I saw it about five times with the original never-to-be-equaled cast, and it’s one of my favorite ballets ever.
I haven’t seen it in over thirty years, or with a different group of performers. Maybe it’s just as well; perhaps some things are better left undisturbed in memory. I can’t imagine that today’s dancers could even begin to approach the artistry of that first ensemble, although the newer ones could no doubt exceed their technical prowess.
I wrote that the original cast was “never-to-be-equaled,” but it’s obvious that I have no way of knowing that. Even if I were to finally attend a modern-day performance of the piece, I wouldn’t be able to compare it to the original except in memory, because videos of that first cast are not readily available. YouTube, for example, has only a very short excerpt.
But I did manage to find two relatively recent videos of the man’s solo that I recall as opening the ballet. That dance was originally performed by my heartthrob Edward Villella, but there’s no online video of him in the role.
Villella was very different, both in body type and dance quality, from either of the modern-day dancers who perform the exact same choreography on those two YouTube videos. Villella was short and compact—muscular, masculine, coiled, and explosive. Here’s a still photo (in a different role) that might serve to give you a small idea of his particular gifts:
The two videos of the other dancers doing that introductory solo interest me because of the contrast between the dancers in them. I watched about ten seconds of this first man, Mathieu Ganio, and immediately thought “You haven’t a clue what you’re trying to convey here, do you?” Not that Ganio lacks technique—he certainly knows the steps, and is exceedingly fluid and lyrical. Actually, he’s way too lyrical; the life of these particular steps is simply not there, their intent and style and spirit, their emphasis and timing and color. He’s blanded-out and smooth, there’s not enough emphasis and shading, and he completely lacks the dance quality known as attack.
After a moment of walking, the dance starts with a mazurka-type step that should have a slightly ethnic flavor. But Ganio doesn’t seem to understand what the choreographer is trying to conjure up with that step (watch especially the folksy passage that starts around 1:06 and goes to about 1:40):
Now take a look at Simon Valastro. He’s no Villella, either—he lacks his fire and intensity. But he gets the point of the dance and the music, understands its shadings and emphases and especially its folk echoes. You can see it almost from the moment he walks on, and certainly within a few seconds after he begins to dance. And compare that passage I pointed out above that started around 1:06; with Valastro it beings around :59 and goes to about 1:35:
Maybe I’m being too hard on them. Maybe if I had a video of Villella to compare with them now, I’d see that the passage of time had given his performance more of a glow than it really had, and I’d decide that the current crop of dancers (especially Valastro) are his equal or even surpass him.
And although I doubt it, I wish I had the chance to find out.
Oh, and here’s that clip I mentioned, the one that shows the only bit of the original cast I could find on all of YouTube. It’s this pas de deux with Patricia McBride and Anthony Blum. Is it possible that any human being can be as light as McBride?
[NOTE: Here's a Village Voice review of the original production. It was all that, and more.]