Moving in silence
Ryan Summerlin July 29, 2012
When Jerome Robbins’ ballet “Moves” had its premiere in 1959, it was programmed with the subtitle “A Ballet in Silence About Relationships.” Robbins said at the time that he wanted to create a ballet about connections between people: “Man and woman, one and another, the individual and the group.”
Perhaps the work’s most striking relationship is between the dancers and their audience. Robbins wanted each and every spectator to have a unique and self-aware viewing experience, unrestricted by music, scenery, costumes and narrative and inspired primarily by bodies in motion. “Moves” was a courageous moment in modern ballet, born of Robbins’ wish to show the limitlessness of stand-alone movement.
Vail International Dance Festival Artistic Director Damian Woetzel performed in “Moves” early in his career at the New York City Ballet.
“In all his ballets, Jerry demanded that the dancers be aware and responsive to each other as a community on stage, but never more so in ‘Moves’ because the ballet was entirely dependent on us reacting to one another and working together to counteract the absence of beat provided by the music,” Woetzel said. “It actually was the perfect way to learn the Robbins aesthetic of not playing to the front of the house but, instead, being a separate world on the stage. You really had to exist in that world in ‘Moves’ or it would all fall apart.”
The ballet caused a sensation around the world, beginning in Spoleto, Italy, where it premiered as part of the second season of Jerome Robbins’ Ballets: USA, the short-lived company Robbins created. Il Messagero pronounced “Moves” a “masterpiece by a great genius – a turning point in the dance,” and the New York Post wrote that the work was “pure movement made into stimulating theater, which like so much of Robbins catches the lives of youth.”
The ballet features a group of 14 dancers dressed in simple practice leotards, moving in silence. An innate rhythm of spontaneous, mutual impulses seems to propel the army in a speedy mixture of both classical and modern movements. The dancers must keep time themselves, relying only on instinctual reactions to the breaths taken and turns made by their peers. To watch 14 dancers follow a collective, silent clock is to witness a breathtaking feat.
“‘Moves’ maintains an element of distinction in New York City Ballet’s repertoire,” said corps dancer Justin Peck, who at 24 has recently become one of the youngest choreographers to be commissioned for a work by New York City Ballet (the ballet, “In Creases,” had its second-only performance Sunday as part of Vail International Dance Festival’s Opening Night). “Since our repertoire is almost entirely driven by music, it is rare for us to perform a ballet that counters this notion. We move based on reflex, undetectable sound, visual cues.”
When corps dancer Lydia Wellington first saw “Moves” performed by the ballet company as a 5-year-old, “I sat on the edge of my seat for the entire 25 minutes.” Now 22, it’s a special honor for her to perform the ballet with the company she fell in love with as a child and a chance to build a unique bond with her fellow company members.
“Because of the silence, you can hear the other dancers around you so clearly, and it creates a very intimate setting that connects all of us. I have to say that I’ve concentrated more in the few minutes that I dance in this ballet than in any other ballet. Even a second of distraction can put you off the sequence entirely. You can’t be carried back into the movement by the music.”
“We place a great deal of trust in one another,” Peck said.
Wellington also appreciates Robbins’ use of physical movement which dancers take for granted, such as a breath before a movement or a slap on the floor: “I especially like the way Robbins took the sound of a pointe shoe, which is usually so distracting to hear when it conflicts with the orchestra, and used it as a conductor’s cue to set the tempo for a section.”
Even without a musical base, the various theaters in which the ballet was first performed in 1959 echoed with what the New York Herald Tribune called “the sounds of dance, for breathing in various cadences of excitement can be heard and so also can the brush, stamp, tap of feet.”
“There may be no music, but ‘Moves’ is by no means a silent piece,” Principal Dancer Tess Reichlen said.
Performed outdoors against the landscape of the Rocky Mountains, and accompanied by the rustling of the trees and summer wind, Robbins’ silent ballet takes on a magical new life at the Vail International Dance Festival.
Erica Sheftman trained at the School of American Ballet for 10 years and recently graduated from Harvard University, where she studied Russian history and literature. This is her third year writing about the Vail International Dance Festival. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.