“But I was happy so puzzled it interests me.”

No, it’s not a line from E. E. Cummings. It comes from a letter the dance critic and poet Edwin Denby sent to Jerome Robbins after the 1974 premiere of his ballet Dybbuk. Denby was no longer reviewing dance, but he had seen the ballet, and as a longtime friend of Robbins he was expected to comment on it. The line actually reads as a summation. In Deborah Jowitt’s biography of Robbins—Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, published in 2004—she quotes this much of the letter:

I’m delighted you did such a strange piece. I couldn’t tell what you were doing. All along I’ve always been able to see what you were doing very clearly but this time I didn’t know. But I was happy so puzzled it interests me.

Denby, himself the strangest of critics—brilliant in the homely, glowing way of Caucasian rugs or priceless Japanese vessels—this time he didn’t know. He said so, in a sentence spiky, abstracted, mysterious, impacted, a sentence that may be a syntactical reflection of the ballet he had just seen. Critics rarely say they don’t know. They are, after all, paid to know, or to sound as if they do. But Robbins’s Dybbuk seems to rise out of a fathomless atmosphere of “don’t know.”

The idea was conceived on the very night of Jerome Robbins’s career-making breakthrough, 1944’s Fancy Free, a triumph he shared with the score’s composer, Leonard Bernstein. Stunned by twenty-two curtain calls, a fourth wall of love flooding over him, Robbins found himself pulled into the arms of Agnes de Mille, who told him that “with such a grasp of form, with such humor and tenderness, he could do whatever he intended to do.” Later that night, standing on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House, Bernstein and Robbins were full of the future, which is another way of saying feeling their power. Having won the day with their jazzy little playlet of a ballet—three sailors on shore leave, looking for love—completely all-American in the big-city melting pot of its dance rhythms, its up-to-the-minute pop-culture exuberance, the two men, as if into a time spiral, were drawn back. That night they agreed they must do The Dybbuk, S. Ansky’s classic of the Yiddish theater.

No doubt they both knew of the play, if not through the legendary Habimah production that remained intact and touring for decades, or the opalescent Polish film of 1937, than through the usual family chatter (“dybbuk schmybbuk”). But which man suggested it first? Harvard-educated and deeply steeped in the religious songs and stories of his Jewish descent, Bernstein knew the literature better than Robbins, who’d hated childhood Torah studies and had finished only one year at New York University, as a chemistry major. For his own part, Robbins’s first forays into New York theater saw him working with the gifted dance director Gluck Sandor, where he took part in a Spanish production called El Amor Brujo, its story of a dead spirit possessing the living very like that of Ansky’s play. Robbins also did a short stint in the Yiddish Art Theatre, where The Dybbuk, of course, was coin of the realm.

Ansky’s religious ghost story, which premiered upon his death in 1920, turns on the Kabbalah, ancient Jewish texts of ominous power. The playwright himself described The Dybbuk as a “realistic play about mystic people,” and the plot synopsis is almost choreographic: Leah and Chanon, a young theologian, are pledged in marriage, but Leah’s father breaks the pledge and deeds her to a wealthier suitor; Chanon invokes the Kabbalah and consumed by cosmic fire he dies, returns as a dybbuk, and takes possession of Leah’s body; the village elders exorcise this dybbuk, but Leah, not wanting to live without her true bridegroom, dies and joins him in oblivion. Star-crossed lovers, dark spells, two young people seeking peace as one—the standard fare of classical dance. As to who pitched the play on the Old Met stage, I would guess Robbins. But as is often the case with young people who share similar upbringings and obstacles and ambitions—who were born less than two months apart (like Leah and Chanon!) in the year 1918—they may both have said it at the same time: Dybbuk. Because despite that rush and flush of success, the world suddenly at their feet, these artists were a long way from fancy free.

Robbins and Bernstein had a bond in that both their fathers were stern businessmen who disdained careers in the arts for their American sons (that is, until their sons were rich and famous). Both families were Russian Jewish, with the old country—raw village life, really—little more then a generation away. And both young men were homosexual, a potentially ruinous complication in mid-century America and for them an unsettled state: Bernstein would flamboyantly marry and have a family, and Robbins, though committed to men, would keep trying with women. The Dybbuk, which is subtitled Between Two Worlds, spoke to who they were and where they were going. It was a declaration of lineage—a return to the ragged world their parents left behind—yet with a Promethean subtext, the stealing of power from a sacred place. Wagnerian in its themes of passion and possession, magic and death, but more chamber-scaled—a sort of shtetl Liebestod—it was also a story of splits and fusions, spirits unsettled and sexual energies unblessed. One feels that for young Robbins and Bernstein The Dybbuk was a three-dimensional Ouija board they were dying to play.

But it didn’t come next or even soon. Sudden status as wunderkinds swept Robbins and Bernstein up and away, into collaboration on the Broadway musical On the Town, another winner opened later that same year, and then on to their separate destinies as omnipresent figures in American high culture. Years passed, and in those years Robbins and Bernstein worked together on the ballets Facsimile (1946) and Age of Anxiety (1950), and the musicals Wonderful Town (1953) and West Side Story (1957). Yet Robbins didn’t forget Dybbuk (as if on a first-name basis with the play, Jerry and Lenny had dropped “The” from its title). In 1954, Robbins proposed the subject to Lincoln Kirstein, with Bernstein to write the score. He was told no. Neither George Balanchine nor Kirstein cared for Bernstein’s music or for his growing self-regard. Moreover, based on letters in Robbins’s archive, published in 2006 in Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, it appears they thought the ballet would be too theatrical, wouldn’t conform, in the words of Kirstein, to City Ballet virtues of “elegance, clarity, balance, and good manners.” One can’t help thinking they feared it would be too Jewish: Balanchine suggested that Robbins offer the dance to Inbal, an Israeli company. Insulted, Robbins compared such a thought to Balanchine doing “Apollo for the Greek Folk Dancers … or Western Symphony for a group of cowboys.” During this exchange Kirstein revealed as well that Balanchine had been hurt when Robbins didn’t cite him in an interview about ballet in musical comedy. So tit for tat. Ansky would have to wait.

“Dybbuk Dybbuk Dybbuk”—like a beating heart, Robbins wrote these words to Bernstein in 1958, urging him to get something “on paper that will get us all started.” Bernstein was too busy. Another fourteen years passed, and in 1972 Robbins again suggested Dybbuk to Kirstein. This time the answer was yes. In his memoir Thirty Years: The New York City Ballet, Kirstein doesn’t mention that he nixed the ballet in 1954, only that Robbins’s idea “seemed logical and appropriate” and that Bernstein “felt right.” Balanchine and Kirstein may not have liked Bernstein any better than before, but in the years between no and yes he’d become the music director of the New York Philharmonic, not to mention the most famous conductor-composer in the world. And if Balanchine was the high holy of classical dance, Robbins was the crown prince of Broadway, a household name with a litany of hits, now including Peter Pan, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof, plus two Academy Awards in 1962 for his work on the film version of West Side Story. By the time they cleared their calendars for Dybbuk, Robbins and Bernstein weren’t wunderkinds anymore. They were masters whose collaborations drew international press and attention.

They were also more complicated men. In 1973, Bernstein was still grappling with his sexuality; two years after Dybbuk’s 1974 premiere, he and his wife Felicia separated, her heart broken over his lack of discretion with younger men. For Robbins the issue was blood. Where Bernstein embraced Judaism, and from the beginning used it as a source of inspiration (his first symphony, the Jeremiah, pulled themes from synagogue melodies), Robbins, from childhood, felt victimized by his Jewishness. This sense of alienation and shame was compounded by a perceived lack of love from his parents. “I never wanted to be a Jew,” Robbins wrote in notes for an autobiography, printed for the first time in Vaill’s Somewhere. “I didn’t want to be like my father… . I wanted to be safe, protected, assimilated.” Maybe this is the subconscious reason for that need of his—deeply visceral, contractually demanded—to see a box around his name whenever the billing for one of his musicals went up (his changed name, originally Rabinowitz).

It didn’t help that the culture at New York City Ballet, a creative home with not one but two patriarchs—Balanchine and Kirstein—had a way of keeping Robbins in his place even as it offered him exquisite dancers and unparalleled support for his ballets. Had the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations—creational, intellectual, aesthetically prophetic—not existed as a taunting standard for Robbins-Bernstein, there was still that high-church, Russian Orthodox strain of Christian faith running through Balanchine’s work, his untroubled vision of white wings, celestial levitations, and eternities of virgin blue. Jowitt reports that in 1973 in Italy, intoxicated by the art, the altars, and the abounding Catholic imagery, Robbins wondered what it would be like to “eat the Good God and have him within you to do better.” By the time Robbins got to Dybbuk his identity as a Jew, notwithstanding the sweeping spiritual empathy he brought to 1964’s Fiddler on the Roof, was riven with ambivalence. A year after Dybbuk, he started work on a project he never finished: The Jew Piece.

“We penetrate into that place of silence which everybody is terrified of … the place with no words & no names & no objects.” Balanchine said this to Robbins in 1972 after a performance of Robbins’s Requiem Canticles. Jowitt tells us that Robbins treasured the remark: “What thrilled him was not just the thought and the implied approval; it was the ‘we’ that linked him to Balanchine.” Heading into the gut work on Dybbuk, which needed a scenario, a score, and a stretch of concentrated time with Bernstein, it was Balanchine’s place of silence that Robbins was reaching for. As he told Clive Barnes, he was trying to make ballets “more and more in the province of dance … the purity of dance, and as pure as it can be.” Robbins and Bernstein spent two weeks in Jamaica working away (also unloading twenty-eight years of resentment), but when Bernstein’s conducting schedule got heavy, Dybbuk’s premiere had to be postponed.

Robbins and Bernstein finally got rolling in 1973, but the collaboration lacked the springy give and take of earlier years. An opposition or duality had set in, the strong will of age and accomplishment, perhaps. And there was also that atmosphere of “don’t know.” Contemplating Dybbuk in 1971, Robbins wrote in his notebooks, “Is it an opera? Ballet? Do we need a choir to narrate? What can be danced? By now is it a Noh—an abstract interrogation… .” Where Bernstein produced an eleven-part symphonic score with two cantorlike voices, Robbins had hoped, he later wrote, for “a small chamber music work about the essences of the play.” Where Bernstein’s music was driving, dramatic, with sci-fi sighs and a yearning that curled and wandered like low fog, Robbins wanted all story stripped away—no words, no names, no objects (he even cut Bernstein’s synopsis from the playbill). The fifty-minute ballet that premiered on May 16, 1974, was what neither man had originally conceived.

Press coverage was huge. I vividly recall poring over the photograph that ran in Time magazine, one of my connections to New York dance during my teens in Chicago. I remember even now the sensation that there was something elusive about the image, but not in a traditionally romantic way. And I was bothered by Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson in those transparent white shifts that weren’t tutu or tunic. I don’t remember who wrote the review, but I do recall its tone of restraint, as if the reviewer had seen something but wasn’t sure what. Excepting a contemptuous critique by The New Yorker’s Arlene Croce (never collected, one wonders why), the reviews of the day might be characterized as respectful yet tentative. Critics were impressed with the score and struck by dramatic flashpoints in the choreography, but some wanted more literal narrative markers while others wanted emotion pitched in higher relief. They wanted the folktale of Fiddler or the reflecting pool of Afternoon of a Faun, not this thing in-between. They seemed to be looking at what the ballet wasn’t, not what it was.

Almost immediately Robbins began cutting anything remotely literal, or as Jack Deither put it in The Villager: “The format of Dybbuk is still experimental, so don’t expect to see the same thing next week your sister-in-law saw last week.” Out went the voices, then details of costuming, then chunks of choreography. Within six months Dybbuk became The Dybbuk Variations, and by 1980, with only the male ensembles remaining, it was retitled Suite of Dances. As if in apology Robbins said, “I think Lenny and I had different ideas. He took the dramatic side, I took the abstract. They’re two parallel paths that don’t converge. Somehow I saw the ballet as cleaner.”

This family of words: purity, pure, cleaner. What a sad reverberation, knowing what we do now, three biographies since his death in 1998, of Robbins’s self-loathing. Did he feel that being a Jew got in the way of his classical aspirations? (Absurdly analytical, he would later wonder if classicism hadn’t gotten in the way of his Jewishness.) And how would he have answered the question, had his analyst asked, “What are you really cutting?” Never satisfied with Dybbuk, Robbins pulled what was left of it from repertory, refusing Kirstein’s request in 1986 that he reinstate the original choreography. This man of the theater who, according to his colleagues, was never wrong, was indeed wrong about Bernstein’s score. It is better than any chamber work could have been. And he was wrong about his ballet, which is a work of art.

This winter, New York City Ballet brought Dybbuk back into repertory—not the cut version but the ballet that premiered in 1974. There was very little fanfare and no buzz in the theater on the Friday night of its revival. The ballet’s reputation had obviously preceded it. But from the first notes of Bernstein’s score—like a dark crack in the earth, a bass-section plunge under a jagged trumpet cascade, immediately followed by two climbing male voices, baritone and bass-baritone singing the Hav’dalah, the Sabbath Blessing of Dualisms—complete authority.

The score contains everything one loves, or hates, about Bernstein: the energy, the brazen pillaging (or peacocking) in the orchestral colors of others—here, the Prokofiev of Romeo and Juliet, and to a lesser degree Stravinsky—the whiz-kid rhythmic vitality and variety, I gotta million of ’em, and the swept-up lyricism, silky, wavy, white as his hair. In Dybbuk it all works. That energy has a nocturnal gleam. And there’s a roughness in those orchestral colors, as if mixed with mud and straw. And there’s a percussive power to these rhythms, like the march beat underscoring the melody that opens and closes the ballet, though it isn’t a melody so much as an insinuating village anthem, like a skinny cat walking Chagall’s rooftops, incense spiraling up, commandments raining down, until a full stop of silence calls up a full-orchestra repeat, the anthem marching now too, its slowness doubling its scale, making it monolithic, slightly mad. Imagine a band at a banquet, painted by Munch. Robbins complained that the score was “without discipline,” and I can see why. There’s a willful, into-the-deep-end push to the music. Bernstein tells Ansky’s story the old-fashioned, Old Testament way, with sweep and no give (it’s more Cecil B. than Mr. B). His thematic coherence is deft, inexorable, and this forces from Robbins a commitment he wasn’t going to make: tell that story. He meets Bernstein’s lavish undiscipline with his own equally lavish discipline. It’s another duality. And the result is astonishing.

The curtain comes up as the voices finish their incantation. The stage is dimly lit, the yellowing glow of aging scrolls. Pictured on the backdrop is a cabalistic figure, a Tree of Life drawn like a hex sign. Standing still in black cassocks are seven men, a row of three backed by a row of four, an asymmetrical wedge. As the anthem begins they hypnotically raise their arms in front of their bodies and then into a U overhead, the port de bras of the Bottle dance. In perfect synchronicity, as a totemic unit, the men then draw their elbows down into right angles. Bulls’ horns and the yoke. Wine and blood. Hands flick, arms cross, flat palms open forward in a strict and deliberate dialect, on the beat, repeated with the music. The program tells us we are In the Holy Place, and the concentration is severe and exciting. As Bernstein lays in Hasidic cadences and Klezmer colorations, Robbins releases these men into ecstatic circles and woodcut jumps, buttons them back into lines in which grapevine and debka steps are performed in slow motion, a hallucination. It is an airtight world, and every movement in this magnificent opening feels engaged, inevitable. It is Fiddler without free will.

I focus on this opening section because it is so focused. There is none of the jostling camaraderie or too easy facility that mars much of Robbins’s choreography for groups that are communities. Robbins called what he was doing in Dybbuk, especially once he started cutting, abstraction, a word reiterated by Kirstein in his memoir. In the dances for these religious elders, I would call it reduction, the vision having simmered for thirty years. Or better yet, compression. It is the psychic compression of Martha Graham, the feel underfoot of roots and caverns, the weight overhead of laws and the Lord.

Into this airtight, lamplit world, however, shivers and mist, phantoms and currents. The second scene, with amazing economy and the lightest touch, shows us The Pledge. Two men, the fathers, dance in unison and then feather out into canon, an infatuated friendship, our children should marry. Two women join them, are lifted to their shoulders, the wives. They seem to fly like white doves, the hoped-for future. Each couple makes a “London bridge” on a side of the stage, and their children emerge from under their arms, Chanon on the left, Leah on the right. The predestined lovers walk toward each other.

Angelic Messengers, three men costumed in white unitards with rags of black chiffon hanging from their sleeves (again, the influence is Chagall), have watched the pledge. They dance the third, more obviously twelve-tone section. What a difficult thing to choreograph. How not to look hokey? Robbins succeeds by staying simple and odd, mercurial then still, and always keeping these three men bound into a tight triangle or line. In three scenes we have been given three states—religious gravity, everyday aspiration, the order above. Then comes scene four, The Dream, and Dybbuk seems to close its eyes and inhale. It begins to leave all other states behind.

It is a classic vision scene—Sleeping Beauty Act Two or La Bayadère’s Kingdom of the Shades—but it is unlike those classics in every way except the beginning, which finds Chanon downstage left, like Solor on his couch in Bayadère. Only Chanon is lying on the floor, the pose of the fallen girl in Balanchine’s Serenade. Leah comes onstage from the right, wearing a breath of white gazar, her pointe work as delicate as her dress, and lies down in the same position opposite him. He rises, wanders the stage, steps one leg over her body and stops, steepled above her on tiptoe. His arms beat like wings—she lifts from the waist and wings with him. “He becomes quite breathless when we talk,” says Leah of Chanon in Act One of Ansky’s play, “and so do I.” They have found one another in their sleep, and here they show us their secret language: a blind march on pointe, arms reaching forward remorselessly; a revenant-like rocking from side to side, body held in the shape of an X (the unknown); and their narrow, serpentine paths—they seem always to move on winding, curving paths. “Mysteries, allusions, without end,” says Chanon in Act One, “yet I see no straight path before me.” What a strange, silvery creature, this pas de deux, made of moth wings it seems, searching for the singe.

All one must do to follow Dybbuk is know the barest outline of the story, which is in a short synopsis printed in the program, the same kind of synopsis we read for umpteen other ballets. Each scene gives way to the next with silent aplomb, Robbins in command of his atmosphere, his allusions, his dynamic doublings, and the narrative portals he needs. Dybbuk gets richer with every viewing, and shorter. Its fifty minutes fly by. And NYCB’s performance of it, meticulously set by Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Elyse Borne, is big and sinuous and committed. As for Leah and Chanon, Robbins doesn’t let us get too close to these characters, doesn’t want them leaning on the audience (hence those complaints about not enough emotion)—once the pledge is made they are already leaving. What’s important is the pull between them, their lunar glow. Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millipied were radiant, her gentle opulence blossoming into abandon in his arms.

The Invocation of the Kabbalah, a set of variations for Chanon and six men—the section in which Chanon dies—is a weak spot in the ballet. It needed more of the fire of the elders, more immolating strangeness. But from there we pass into the Maiden’s Dance, an evocation, really, of Juliet in her room, refusing Paris, reaching through time and space for her faraway lover. And then to Robbins’s tour de force, the possession, which like a shooting star in the Arctic, hot and cold, arcs through four dark sections—Transition, Possession, Exorcism, Reprise and Coda—and sees Robbins not only sustaining his vision, but deepening it. In fact, every element of this collaboration is sustained. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting and Patricia Zipprodt’s costumes hover between hard and soft, a stone past and its haunting shadows. And Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s scenery, like Robbins’s choreography, treats heavy history with a glancing minimal- ism, most compellingly when he lowers two looming tallises from the fly space, Chanon’s black shawl upstage left, Leah’s white one upstage right. They are his death shroud and her bedchamber. And they are veils between flesh and spirit, this world and the next.

I don’t want to say too much about the ballet’s culmination, which begins violently, an allegro with a sense of demented erotic play, and then travels into adagio, one of the most ghostly, eloquent, ever made, an interior astral plane sensationally supported by Bernstein’s momentous glides, and filled by Robbins with discovery, a breathing cleave and release, aeries of ardor in vast emptiness. There is an arousal here reminiscent of Faun, but without the tension of ego, the polished edge. And there is an eerie freedom. Robbins uses steps in the way Balanchine, six years later, would use them in Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze”: floating in space, as if dissolving during the act of being danced. A touch of tendu, a piqué arabesque, a reach, a run, all disappering like breath on glass. Everything gone but these two and their caresses.

In the Exorcism, look for the Menorah that dislodges the dybbuk—a signet made of men. And in the coda, the dybbuk’s living-dead return is terrific sleight-of-hand, just thrilling. Here as well, I love what Robbins took from Balanchine. Whoever thought to program this revival with Serenade as the opener: Bravo. It isn’t just the silhouette of the fallen girl. Robbins has also echoed the final diagonal, the young girl’s ascension and arch backward, heart bared to meet the light. The audacity of it, using Balanchine’s Easter image for Leah’s unholy reach into oblivion’s arms—the physical bliss in the fusion, the subversive twist; it burns Robbins’s own image, monstrous and melting yet powerful and beautiful, hotter and whiter.

At the time of the premiere, only two critics, both British, saw what Robbins was doing. Clive Barnes, reviewing for The New York Times, wrote, “the conceptual story of love, possession, and exorcism is often brilliantly portrayed.” Still, he quibbled that Robbins’s theatricality was sometimes too slick. Three weeks and some performances later, he revised his opinion upward: “I think Dybbuk with live to haunt its detractors for many years.” The late Richard Buckle was certain from the start. Reviewing for London’s Observer, he wrote, “A work blazing with imagination and genius. No, ‘blazing’ is the wrong word. [It] smolders darkly. It is so odd, so unexpected, so original, and so quiet that there is a danger that many people will miss the point altogether: many have missed it.”

Why did critics hesitate before Dybbuk’s beauty? Was it mixed feelings about the dream team? Toxic residue from Pauline Kael’s 1963 hatchet job on West Side Story? The mockery in the air from Tom Wolfe’s essay of 1970, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s”? Were there too many dry Robbins works leading up to it (Watermill, An Evening’s Waltzes), impatience setting in? Or was it simply that Robbins began cutting so quickly most critics never saw the complete ballet more than once, never had a chance to see past a first impression that caught them off guard?

Great works often go unrecognized, and it requires more than one viewing to take in Dybbuk, to see the lay of the land: the interlocking layers of existence, obsession; the straight lines and angles so full of heat and wrath; the deep well that keeps forming center stage, elemental in the dances of the men, phosphorescent in the possession; and the burnished curves and serpentines that create an in-between for Leah and Chanon, an otherworldly seam—“It is only through your thoughts that I can remember who I am.” Robbins has given us a Cubist shtetl of dusk and dawn but no daylight. And in the lovers’ dances he has given us something stranger, a lyric somewhere that is nowhere, a nowhere that might be everywhere. He said he wanted to make “a very hard diamond of a ballet.” He did. A black diamond, and a masterpiece.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 8 , on page 44
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