“This is a ghetto version of The Ring of the Nibelung,” Leonard Bernstein said, with his old friend Jerome Bobbins standing nearby. Then he looked as if he had better make it sound a lot less formidable than that. “Carol Channing isn’t in it. The director hasn’t been fired. The leading man isn’t in love with the producer’s wife, nor with the producer. But everything else is the same. So it’s just like a Broadway show.” Jerry and Lennie—as their admirers call them—had come to the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center one morning last month for the final run-through of Dybbuk, a new and very Hebraic ballet on the theme of exorcism, with a score by Bernstein for a set of dances by Bobbins. The dress rehearsal had ended, as most do, in doubts. But the composer and choreographer were being calm in the way of old pros.
They felt even better after the “gala preview” that same night for black-tied supporters of the New York City Ballet who paid $250 for pairs of tickets. The next night prices were down, Bobbins-Bernstein buffs filled the house, and at the end there was a long and highly approving roar (although the critics were more reserved).
In a month when four international dance companies were performing in the dance world’s capital city, the opening of Dybbuk was the event of the season. The reason was simply the names: Bernstein, the most celebrated composer-conductor in the world, and Bobbins, close to the top of any list of the great choreographers.
They had not worked together since West Side Story in 1957. Thirty years back their first joint venture—and big hit—was the ballet Fancy Free. For their Dybbuk they had dug back into Jewish mysticism and folklore. For a plot line they used a play first seen in Warsaw in 1920. The soul of a young scholar, a dybbuk, has resettled in holy rage inside his beloved when she is headed for ruin with the wrong man. Dybbuk and Girl are locked into a fix from which only an exorcist can free them. “The ballet is based on our experience in Jewishness,” the composer said, looking at Robbins, who muttered, “It isn’t.” Unfazed, Bernstein tried a mix of flattery and self-abasement. “Jerry doesn’t quite agree,” he said, “but mostly he just doesn’t like to be caught saying anything that nudgy.”
Choreographers and composers work together in as many odd ways as lyricists and composers. In old St. Petersburg Petipa ordered up the Nutcracker music in exact moods and lengths from Tchaikovsky—like high-class yard goods. Balanchine was handed Agon when it was all finished by Stravinsky, who never added or dropped a note. Robbins and Bernstein hit on a middle way of working. “I just wrote music and played it for Jerry, and he said, ‘That excites me,’ or he didn’t,” Bernstein said. Even when the score was fully orchestrated, Robbins did not regard the choreography as so finished that he could run it through his mind like a reel of film. “I know where I want this ballet to get to,” he was still saying the day it opened, “but I work out the routes as I go along.”
When they started, Robbins wanted Dybbuk to be as story-telling a ballet as Swan Lake. His collaborator was so sure it should be abstract that he decked it out with traces of unfamiliar 12-tone music and tunes on an 8-note scale in a 9-note octave. By the time they ended up, they had switched preferences completely, but had settled on a compromise. “It has no precedent,” Bernstein claimed, “It’s sui generis.”
His last big work was his Mass, which was half hard-rock music and a big Bernstein-ish embrace of the Roman Catholic liturgy. It had those Jews who think he is a flower of their faith quite worried. To have him back with Dybbuk would please them—if not the fact that as he finished his exorcism music score at 2:45 one morning a few weeks back, Leonard Bernstein wrote Laus Deo (Praise God).