Dances at a Gathering (1969) is one of Jerome Robbins’ most acclaimed ballets. Danced to Chopin, it is a meditation on relationships and what is revealed when people move together, alongside one another, in companionship. Robbins is rarely sweet—and that’s a word that may be too close to saccharine for it to have a less tainted meaning—but there is an innocence in this ballet that feels unweighted by drama. And drama is something that Robbins is well-known for, both in creating tension and meaning in dance, and in the process of choreography.
So a handwritten fury of pages in the archives about the making of Dances at a Gathering particularly piqued my interest. Robbins attempts to explain how the ballet “came out of me with the least amount of control, certainly the least amount of pain + anxiety.” It started with the music, listening to it over and over and over and over. He presents this visually on the page by rewriting the name Chopin bigger and bigger until there is a spiral in the “o” and an arrow pointing to the center of it with the words “go in.” Letters of the name – C, H, O, etc. – disaggregate and float around the next page. And then the next page is only small floating dots with the words, “and when you get here, stay.” Perhaps the most important advice appears on the bottom of the page, in caps: “DO NOT STOP AND CRITIQUE.”
Robbins then reverts to writing again, leaving aside the visualizations, although he is still seemingly capturing the rush of thoughts. He urges one to make sequences, not steps; “the longer the line of logic (including breaking it up) the better will you reach what you want to say.” Again: “Don’t stop and criticize—Go.”
There’s more—sexual metaphors about the fullness of being in the dance; truisms about not approaching the process as a lesson or task. But what becomes more and more apparent as I meander through Robbins’ voluminous notes and writings and drawings: I’m not sure his choreographic process often proceeded this way. Dances at a Gathering may well be a rarity largely because of that.