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A Meditation on Love: The troubled creation of Jerome Robbins’s In the Night

Though a mature masterpiece, Robbins’s ballet had one of the most fraught geneses of any in work the repertory, pushing its choreographer to near-breaking point.

By Amanda Vaill (Biographer, journalist and screenwriter)

18 May 2015 at 11.09am | 1 Comment

In the spring of 1969, after a 13-year absence directing and choreographing Broadway musicals, straight plays, film, his own dance company and an experimental theatre group, Jerome Robbins returned to New York City Ballet with a rapturous new work, Dances at a Gathering, the critical and popular success of the season. Robbins, ‘still fascinated by the music of Chopin’, was thinking of a follow-up: a set of three pas de deux set to Chopin's Nocturnes.

But the summer after Dances at a Gathering was a fraught one for Robbins. Although the choreographer was currently living with a young woman named Christine Conrad, he had recently begun an affair with an actor, Edward Davis (not his real name), who was married and bisexual. The affair caused a painful rupture in his relationship with Conrad. Almost more painfully, Davis then broke off the affair, and Robbins, psychically battered, retreated to a beach house on Long Island.

It was supposed to be a healing respite, but two friends, in
 a mistaken attempt to cheer Robbins up, encouraged him to experiment with LSD, which he had never tried. The result was a cataclysmic ‘bad trip’ in which Robbins became convinced that he’d been transformed into a glass table that had cracked all over and was about to shatter into a million shards. Terrified, he curled into a fetal position, remaining ‘close to suicide, murder – & total anarchy’, as he put it, for almost forty-eight hours.

Once his LSD crisis was over (he had flashbacks for weeks) he tried to get started on his planned Chopin ballet. But more disaster followed. Still bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the events of the last months, he took a bad step while demonstrating an idea to the dancers in the studio: there was an audible pop, and he crumpled to the floor. He’d snapped his Achilles tendon in two.

Surgery repaired the injury and Demerol dulled the pain, but Robbins found choreographing in a wheelchair, with a plaster cast on his leg, impossible. For someone who thought with his body, who had to dance to make dances, it was impossible. Finally, however, he was able to get around on crutches and began to put the ballet together. Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances surrounding its creation, it was dark, but it was also, paradoxically, understanding and tender: a meditation – sometimes empathetic, sometimes rueful – on love.

In the Night takes place on a dimly-lit stage. To the music of four Chopin nocturnes three couples of varying temperaments appear, each seemingly at a different stage in their relationship. First is a youthful pair lost in heedless ecstasy. They are succeeded by a more mature, sophisticated duo, whose half-ironic politesse is expressed in mirrored gestures; for these two, love is a banked fire whose heat is only revealed by the trembling batterie of the woman’s feet as her partner lifts her in an embrace. Finally a third couple sweeps on, passionate and tempestuous, he pursuing her. They fling themselves at each other, expostulate, rush away, and come together again – at which point the woman sinks to the floor in front of him, her hands extended. And he takes them and lifts her, in arabesque, high above his head like a goddess, then cradles her in his arms as he exits. At the ballet’s end, to the gently rocking notes of the last nocturne, all three couples emerge as if from separate trances, encounter and acknowledge one another, then part and go their different ways.

As the critic Arlene Croce pointed out, In the Night was ‘Robbins’s first ballet to deal with mature people’. In fact – although he would almost certainly have denied anything so overt – it was his first attempt to engage, in an artistic way, with the confrontations and crises of his own maturity; to portray love in its different stages and at different ages, not just in its first fine careless rapture, and to show that each formed part of the whole.

This is an edited extract from Amanda Vaill’s article ‘Sweet Love Remembered’ in The Royal Ballet’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.

In the Night runs 29 May–4 June 2015 as part of a mixed programme with Afternoon of a Faun and Song of the Earth. Tickets are currently sold out, but returns may become available and there are 67 day tickets available for all performances.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Tony Newcombe responded on 18 May 2015 at 5:05pm Reply

    So nice to see the photograph of Campbell and Maguire being used. To many of us they were quite wonderful last time

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