A Suite of Dances - Credit: Paul Kolnik

Los Angeles was lucky to get a chance to see a rarely performed work from the Robbins opus last week. A Suite of Dances, a breezy and at times whimsical take on a group of four unrelated movements excerpted from the Bach Cello Suites was originally made for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1994. It was last seen in the New York City Ballet repertory more than a decade ago though it has been performed at New York’s Fall for Dance, Jacob’s Pillow, galas, and other one off occasions. It’s a small scale but probing look at Bach that features a solo dancer in a dialogue with the onstage music. In a sense the music is not merely accompaniment; the roles are interactive and also include a fair amount of direct engagement with the audience.

The magic here is found in Robbins’ intense and detailed connection to the music ...

Featured in the Zipper Stage concert were Colburn Conservatory cellist Emma Lee, and Danny Ulbricht, principal dancer with City Ballet. Ulbricht learned the role from Baryshnikov. He has some of the same easy lift and on stage bonhomie as the Russian star. The piece trades on its high spirits and informality but behind it all is plenty of demanding dancing, and in the Sarabande, a telling shift to a more philosophical connection between the dancer and the music.

The third movement Sarabande (a 17th century Mexican/Spanish dance form) seems the weighted center of the piece. Here Robbins abandons the step infused choreography of the other three movements.With its expressive hand movements and an improvisatory nature, both dancer and cellist wend their way through the movement’s dark and exposed melody. It feels like the reverie of a somnambulist. The work is bookended by two Preludes but each is rooted in dance, the opening movement something of a propulsive Allemande and the closing, a fleet Minuet.  A Gigue completes the quartet.

The magic here is found in Robbins’ intense and detailed connection to the music, not just the moods, but the phrasing, repeats, and unexpected reflections of musical motifs in dance. There are ballet bits, jazzy bits, walking around bits, sailor bits pulled from his Fancy Free, cartwheels and somersaults, and plenty of gestural invention. In one sense Robbins takes these pieces off their pedagogical pedestal and ultimately humanizes them with a kind of everyman familiarity. Here was familiar dance music from the classical high Baroque at long last paired with an actual dancer.

For the program Ms Lee was dressed to the nines in concert black while Ulbricht suited up in a long sleeve tee shirt and sweat pants. It made for a bit of a mismatch that was ultimately distracting. The original costuming is simple enough, two tone burgundy pants and top. Too bad some version of that went missing for the performance. Other than the sartorial context, Lee and Ulbricht seemed a good match. It was her first time through these works as a dance accompanist and as she said in a discussion following the work something of a revelation for enlarging the contexts of music which for her has always been played in a strictly concert music context.

Ulbricht has some of the same easy lift and on stage bonhomie as the Russian star.

Following a brief on stage discussion with Ulbricht, Lee, and Colburn Dance Academy Director Jenifer Ringer, Lee reprised the opening Prelude playing by herself, and the second movement Gigue for both. It was an evening of good vibes and good tempos.

(The movements in order are:  Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G major, Gigue from Suite No. 1 in G major, Sarabande from Suite No. 5 in C minor, Prelude from Suite No. 6 in D major. The reviewed performance took place in Los angeles at the Colburn School on October 19, 2018 )

Photo: A Suite of Dances / Paul Kolnik

About the author

Steven Woodruff lives in Los Angeles where he is a professional musician, dancer, educator, and writer. His writing includes original poetry and translations as well articles on film, stage, television, and culture. He reviews dance and music covering national and international touring concert programs as well as local companies for DancePlug, DanceChannelTV, and BachTrack in the UK.