"I Haven't Seen it in 30 Years and I Could Go Another 30 Before Seeing it Again"

Overheard in the ladies’ room at the New York City Ballet tonight, followed by laughter, and “you said it!” and “just a little self-indulgent, wouldn’t you say?!” and “full of every pretentious cliche there is,” and “well, the next one’s a lot better, it’s REAL BALLET, I PROMISE!” The last quote was followed by a chorus of “oh yes”s. I’ve never heard the ladies room that animated. Ever. This was all in response to Jerome Robbins‘ “Watermill.” Poor Mr. Robbins; no wonder the first performance of this ballet in 1972 was greeted with boos.

(Above picture by Paul Kolnick from here)

I initially agreed with the “pretentious” woman, although I felt a bit differently about it after reading eminent dance scholar Deborah Jowitt‘s write-up on the piece in the program notes. Which is one of the functions of great critics and writers — to make the public understand and appreciate a work that seems undecipherable and hence aggravating.

Speaking of dance critics, I sat next to Alastair Macaulay tonight! (For those who don’t know, he is the newish chief dance critic of the NYTimes) It made me unbelievably nervous actually. But I don’t know why. He was very pleasant; he hardly wrote anything at all, and when he did he was very quiet about it and I only knew he was writing because I was trying to pay close attention to what he noticed … although his pen usually seemed to be going when nothing was really happening onstage. Anyway, he was reading a copy of the New York Review of Books and he had a Haruki Murakami book in his bag, which was more overstuffed even than mine.

(headshot by Paul Kolnick)

Back to “Watermill.” Well, here’s what happens: a man (here, the wonderful Nikolaj Hubbe, formerly with NYCB but now directing the Royal Danish Ballet and returning for a guest turn) is onstage wearing a robe. Also onstage are three big wheat stacks and a waterfall and quarter moon in the background. We go through an entire day, the moon slowly filling in to signify approaching night, then disappearing to show daylight, then returning to quarter moon – twilight. And this symbolizes the stages of the man’s life. I think. As the piece begins, Nikolaj looks very slowly at his surroundings, and as a Japanese bamboo flute sounds in the background, he looks around, mesmerized by that sound and longing to find its source, to follow it. He disrobes, now wearing only white underwear. Soon, a group of men bearing colorful lanterns atop long bamboo poles cross the stage; the man doesn’t seem to notice. They are followed by another group of men carrying colorful paper kites cut in the shape of birds and a dancer emerges and performs a very feathery, birdlike, solo. He was actually my favorite part of the whole thing — the “bird / man.” I think he was my favorite because he was the only one who had much movement, or at least non-extreme slow-motion movement. Soon he disappears and a group of warrior-like men bearing what look like spears emerge and taunt Nikolaj, who for the most part resists them. After a while they leave and a woman appears wearing a robe. Nikolaj is very taken with her. She disrobes, wearing a modern black bathing-suit, unwraps her hair which is up in a towel, and brushes her hair. As I said, the entire thing unfolds as if in extreme slow-motion. It must take a full 10-15 minutes for the woman to disrobe, shake her hair out and begin to brush it. Eventually Nikolaj resists her and lies down and falls asleep, while another man emerges and performs a duet with her evocative of copulation. He leaves, she leaves, and a person wearing a lion’s mask comes out and does a frightening dance. Nikolaj sleeps the whole time. Later women come out to harvest the wheat, waking Nikolaj. They give him two long stalks of wheat and he holds them above his head, like spears, like a god, then waving them around, making various shapes with them, symbolizing what I’m not exactly sure. He does this for maybe ten minutes, staring up at the stalks like they hold the key to the meaning of the universe. It keeps going like this, slowly slowly SLOWLY. Even Sir Alastair got shifty in his seat. More people come out, some moving in ways that some in the audience, judging by the sounds around me, thought laughable. And finally the moon goes back to the way it was at the beginning of the piece and we know it’s over. I’d say it got polite applause, along with lots of rolling eyes and angry bathroom talk.

Anyway, according to Jowitt, during the 60s Robbins had become fascinated with Japanese Noh drama, characterized as “ceremonious, slow-moving, poetic plays in which every spare action imprints itself on the viewer’s mind as indelibly as a brushstroke in a master’s calligraphy.” Her explanation made me better appreciate what he was aiming for but something tells me I would have liked a good Noh play better. Robbins’ drama just didn’t make sense to me — I couldn’t even figure out what country or era we were in: Lion man, bird-like man, warrior men, a woman wearing a bathrobe and swimsuit and hair toweled up like something out of the American 50s, people harvesting wheat… I’d love to see a Noh play now but I feel like for the extreme slow-moving actions to leave an indelible imprint, they have to be recognizable. I have to know why he’s waving those wheat stalks around above his head for me not to forget its image.

I mean, let me just contrast this ballet to a short film I recently saw at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was a Spanish-language film called “So Beautiful” and in it a woman in her late sixties / early seventies, overweight, skin sagging, age spots, is at the beach. She brings a picture of herself and a beau in her youth, sets it up on a little table next to her umbrella, pulls a champange glass and a small bottle of champagne out of an ice box along with crackers topped with smoked salmon and cream cheese, pours the champagne, drinks, eats, etc. A young woman approaches her and asks her to watch her bag, which the older woman agrees to do. But time passes, the young woman never returns and the older woman is ready to leave. Eventually, the older woman begins to leaf through the bag, finding typical young woman things — makeup, inexpensive costume jewlery, a condom, some loose change. As the older woman goes through the bag her facial expressions reflect her reminiscing on her own youth. The film is about 15 minutes long, and it has virtually no real “action” except for the two or three seconds it takes the young woman to ask the older woman to watch the bag. But it was unbelievably mesmerizing to watch the older woman’s face register happy memories, even just watching her look out at a fisherman as she eats her salmon crackers and sips her champagne made you think about what she might have been thinking watching that man. It made you think about the aging process, cycles of life, youth and beauty… it nearly made me cry and I have to say it had more impact than I think any of the full-length films I saw.

Maybe it’s silly to compare a movie with a ballet, but I know I wasn’t the only one not enthralled with Robbins here! Plus, Tribeca’s on my mind since today was the last of my films … 🙁 (more about the movies later).

Anyway, the other ballet tonight was Robbins’ “The Four Seasons” which I wrote about here. It’s a cute enough ballet, based on opera with caricatures that symbolize the four seasons, but it’s not my favorite. I just have to say, the nano-second Kathryn Morgan appeared onstage I saw her and couldn’t take my eyes off her, and she didn’t have a lead role here. I wish they’d give her more big roles. This entire NYCB season, which began this week, is devoted to Robbins, so all programs will be Robbins-heavy, which I’m looking forward to, since, tonight’s program aside, I’m a big fan of his.


  1. “Watermill” seemed to me almost more like theater than dance at times–if that’s a distinction that can be made? So it doesn’t seem wrong to me to compare it to a movie even though the kind of media is different. I think movies allow a kind of intimacy you can’t achieve on the stage of the New York State Theater, but when two works are concerned with similar themes it seems valid to me to examine which one handled those themes more effectively.

    I’d read about how slow it was going to be and the comparison to Noh (which I’ve never seen, but have read about) and went in expecting to think it was awful. So I was actually surprised to discover I didn’t hate it. I thought that the stillness and meditativeness, the attempt to pull the viewer into a different perception of time passing, was interesting. I also thought it only worked in some places, but in those places I was intrigued by it, if not moved. And I definitely agree with you that I want to know what the movement MEANS. I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out as the dance was going on (because hey, it left us with a lot of time to ponder).

    I can totally understand hating it though. My roommate (who thought it was a miserable experience) described parts of it as the world’s slowest striptease. There was also a woman who walked by with, I assume, her grandchildren (preteens?) telling them they’d done a very good job of sitting through that and promising that the next one was better and a lot of fun. 🙂

  2. No one loves New York City Ballet more than I and I am also a very big fan of Jerry Robbins’ choreography but WATERMILL has to be the worst ballet I have ever seen. No, I take that back – it is the worst non-ballet or anti-ballet that I have ever seen. I did not see this past week’s perforamce with Nikolaj Hubbe because I saw it many years ago (back in the 70s) with the great Edward Villella in the lead role and I vowed then to never, never see it again. And I’m pleased to say that I have kept that vow. It was one of the first ballet programs that I had ever been to and it almost turned me off from ballet for life. Fortunately that evening, it was followed by the Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, which I loved. And so yes, I understand perfectly what that woman in the Ladies Room meant. But if she did see it 30 years ago, and went again now, she obviously did not learn her lesson. Shame on her!

    Just for the record, I love Four Seasons – it’s one of my favorite Robbins’ ballets.
    And yes, I agree totally with your observation regarding Kathryn Morgan. When she steps onstage, you see no one else. “Charisma,” “star quality,” call it what you will – she’s definitely got it! I can’t wait to see her Second Movement ballerina lead in Western Symphony.

  3. How did you know it was McCauley? Did he introduce himself or do you know what he looks like?

  4. Too bad that Nikolaj came back for *this*, which, I believe, isn’t what he’s really known for. I wonder with Macaulay’s shiftiness, how this piece compared to what he wrote about a piece at the SF Ballet New Works Festival?

    ““The Ruins Proclaim the Building Was Beautiful” … lasts no more than 30 minutes, but only by clock time. While you watch, you begin to feel that Bill Clinton probably eloped with Michelle Obama long ago, that the problems of Palestine and Iraq and Afghanistan must have all been sorted by now, that whole generations of human life have passed and aliens have surely taken over the planet and then departed, all while you are stuck there in the theater trying to find the least interest in watching the same tepid floozies doing the same limp steps.”

    I would have been tempted to chat with him. 🙂

  5. You’re so lucky you always get sat next to the coolest people! First Judith Jamison and now Macaulay!

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