The half-dozen Jerome Robbins ballets Miami City Ballet performs are masterpieces, in one way or another, of dramatic insight — whether romance for “In The Night” or boisterous male camaraderie in “Fancy Free” or the subtle community of “Dances at a Gathering.”
“Glass Pieces,” the latest Robbins work MCB is adding to its repertoire and premiering Friday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center as part of Program II, seems — at least initially — like a much more abstract and purely kinetic entertainment. With its throbbing Philip Glass score and rushing squads of dancers, this 1983 dance has a reputation as an exhilarating portrait of urban energy.
But make no mistake, says Jean Pierre Frohlich, the NYCB ballet master who worked closely with Robbins and taught “Glass Pieces” to MCB’s dancers, this dance is still full of the choreographer’s trademark meticulous detail and sense of humanity.
“All those ballets were part of who he was,” Frohlich said from New York. “With Jerry you had to understand his thought process and how much he cared about detail. There are so many layers.”
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Robbins, who died in 1998, was probably best known for music theater masterpieces such as “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” But he was also a brilliant and pivotal classical choreographer and the secondary dancemaker, after George Balanchine, at New York City Ballet. Frohlich, who began dancing at NYCB in 1972, was close to Robbins and began coaching his ballets in 1990; he also works with the Robbins Rights Trust to teach Robbins’ ballets to other companies.
The program includes two other company premieres: “Calcium Light Night,” a stark 1978 pas de deux by NYCB artistic leader Peter Martins that was his first ballet; and “Carousel Pas de Deux,” from a 1994 revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical created by British choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan. The show opens with Balanchine’s beloved, lyrical “Serenade.”
“Glass Pieces” is set to excerpts from several compositions by the avant-garde composer whose repetitive, hypnotic musical patterns became known as minimalism. In the early ’80s, Glass’ lush melodies and urgent rhythms helped make him an arts star. Robbins loved “Einstein on the Beach,” Glass’ breakthrough opera collaboration with director Robert Wilson, and was also interested in downtown choreographers such as Lucinda Childs, whose repetitive, simple movements were a kind of physical version of Glass’ music. Although talks with Glass about directing one of his operas didn’t come to fruition, they did result in “Glass Pieces.”
“He wanted to find something very minimal,” Frohlich says of Robbins. “He was trying to find his way in that way of choreographing, and not do a narrative ballet. Phillip Glass’ music was popular at the time. He heard something so American and New York in it.”
The ballet’s first movement sets walking dancers criss-crossing the stage, contrasted with three solo couples. The second movement puts a slow pas de deux in front of a line of women silhouetted at the back, moving in tiny, repetitive steps. The final section is an exuberant ensemble dance; throughout, the corps de ballet is the star.
“He never treated his ballets, even the abstract pieces, as abstract,” says Frohlich. “He had ways of motivating or helping a dancer achieve a certain way of moving.”
Frohlich compares the first section to being at a train station or city center at rush hour, everyone racing towards a different destination. The dancers have to improvise entrances, exits and direction, taking care not to hit each other — or the soaring solo couples.
“That is actually one of the most difficult sections,” Frohlich says. “You have to take the initiative.” The soloists are like creatures from another dimension; in Deborah Jowitt’s biography “Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance,” she writes that Robbins told dancer Helene Alexopoulos “I want you to be a steel angel from outer space.”
In the second section, the tiny movements of the women in back represent a different challenge, says Lauren Fadely, an MCB soloist who was part of that lineup at NYCB and is performing the pas de deux this weekend.
“It’s easy steps, but it’s mentally challenging, you have to really count and be together,” she says. Even a tiny deviation is glaringly apparent. “Jean Pierre told us the backline is like the codes of the computer, and the couple is like the human life of the world,” she says. But despite that mechanistic inspiration, Fadely loves dancing “Glass Pieces.” “The music is very commanding,” she says. “It makes you want to dance.”
The dynamic group ending demands a new level of energy. Frohlich compares it to a kind of ritual celebration, one that demands total dedication from the corps de ballet. “It’s very tribal, very athletic,” he says.
In recent years, Frohlich says, he has pushed the dancers in “Glass Pieces” to move with greater force and range. That urgent physical energy, and the way popular dance music echoes the driving pulse of Glass’ compositions, seem to have helped the dance become one of the most popular in NYCB’s repertoire.
“They all have to commit,” he says. “They all have to be one. You can’t have one person thinking “Oh, I’m just one person, I won’t be seen.” You’re seen. You’re naked.”
If you go
What: Miami City Ballet in Program II
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Info: $20 to $189 at miamicityballet.org or 305-929-7010
Program repeats Jan 20-22 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale and Feb. 4-5 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.