Is it possible for a dance, or music for that matter, to be true? If it is, Jerome Robbins’ 1969 “Dances at a Gathering” set to solo piano music of Chopin comes very close. This work finds in the ambivalence of human relationships an eloquent vernacular. Hope and disappointment, misunderstanding and joy, friendship, companionship, courtship, and loss, all add hushed nobility to our daily lives. Chopin’s music defines that bittersweet nexus of the profound and the quotidian, in fact it may have invented it. Robbins’ “Dances” so ideally suits this music—the combination is so inevitable—that were they made first, waltzes and mazurkas would have to have been written to match its subtlety.
In Robert Lowell’s poem, “While Hearing the Archduke Trio,” he creates a balletic image of a couple’s struggle for emotional intimacy. He pictures them in bed:
"two waspheads lying on one pillowslip,
drowning, one toe just skating the sheet for bedrock."
And so goes the partnering in “Dances at a Gathering.” Through lifts and point work, couples reach for air and search for grounding. In an early duet, there is a moment of erotic fulfillment expressed in a striking lift. The woman flies aloft her partner, her leg outstretched dramatically. He walks forward, totally blinded by her dress. Could there be a truer depiction of Eros’ ambivalent impact?
My friend, the sculptor Ryo Toyonaga, doesn’t title any of his works. He says that in the process of naming, we define, but also delimit our understanding. His mysterious creations remain unnamed and unexplained. “Dances at a Gathering” doesn’t so much name as open a way to see the questions that gather in the daily steps of our life, and it proposes eloquence in the face of life’s unanswerable questions.
“Chopin” by Marcel Proust, translated by Richard Howard
Ocean of sighs, and just above the waves
a flight of butterflies pauses . . . no, passes,
circling above the melancholy sea . . .
Dream, love, suffer, sleep it off!
and between each throb of pain produce
the sudden oblivion of your whim—
don’t butterflies proceed from flower to flower?
Thus your joy becomes your grief’s accomplice
(the whirlpool’s thirst is only for more tears).
Prince of despair? A noble lord betrayed?
The moon’s pale companion and the sea’s,
you still exult, the paler the handsomer,
in the sun that floods your sickroom, weeping
at your smile and suffering at the sight . . .
the smile is for Regret, the tears for Hope!