Anita Paciotti on Dances at a Gathering

Ballet Master and Principal Character Dancer Anita Paciotti studied at the SF Ballet School and joined the Company in 1968. She became a rehearsal assistant in 1982, and Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson appointed Paciotti principal character dancer in 1987. Four years later, she was promoted to ballet master and is currently responsible for staging and rehearsing Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering.

Dances at a Gathering is about our life as dancers. It’s not set in a mystical space. It takes place on stage, in that moment. The ballet opens with the Brown Boy. He enters looking around the stage, at his surroundings, as if he’s returning to the theater. He starts dancing slowly, almost as if he’s remembering what he’s done many times. The steps become more youthful as the piece progresses, and he’s bouncing around like a faun by the end of that section. This role was originally danced by Edward Villella, and later by Helgi.

It’s important to know that Robbins had been away from New York City Ballet (NYCB) for 10 years before he created Dances at a Gathering. He had been working on Broadway and in theater at that time. Robbins was very serious about acting and theater—not just musical theater. He was most focused on getting the real and raw emotions out of people. I recently read that a dancer who worked with him noted he rarely corrected her on a technical aspect of a step. He was most interested in the intentions behind the movements.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering.
(© Erik Tomasson)

When Robbins returned to NYCB after a long time spent on Broadway, he came back with this ballet. He chose a cast of very established stars, including Violette Verdy, Allegra Kent, Edward Villella, and Patricia McBride, among others, but he didn’t showcase them as glittery stars. Perhaps Robbins was seeing these dancers with fresh eyes. He intended to make this a ballet about humans and human interactions, and present them as people.

Helgi and Robbins worked together extensively at NYCB. Now in rehearsal, Helgi imparts what he remembers from working with Robbins on Dances at a Gathering. His memories help us understand Robbins’ original intentions for the ballet.

The Music & The Mood
Set to a series of pieces by Frédéric Chopin played by a single pianist, Dances at a Gathering is utterly musical. To me, it looks as if the music was written for the steps.

I don’t know how Robbins compiled the different pieces of music, but he created a symphony with what he pieced together. From the slow, thoughtful, and reflective opening, it moves through a variety of emotions and moods. It’s incredibly well-balanced.

How he grouped the music is very entertaining. After the dramatic scherzo section, the ballet ends with the dancers simply walking around the stage. In a very dramatic statement, he has them stop and look out at the audience. As well as creating a very powerful moment, he also offers the audience the chance to just listen to the beautiful music. It’s a quiet and reflective moment of the ballet, one that an audience doesn’t quickly forget.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering.
(© Erik Tomasson)

A Timeless Masterpiece
What makes Dances at a Gathering so interesting year after year, and what really makes it work onstage, is how the dancers relate to one another. Unlike most ballets where the man is always standing behind the woman partnering her, Dances at a Gathering is choreographed so the dancers have very human interactions where they have the opportunity to look into each others eyes, or offer a hand.

In real life, the dancers really depend on each other. They need patience and cooperation in order to support one another in their work in the rehearsal studio. The camaraderie is very clear, both in the studio and backstage. You don’t necessarily see this from the audience, but in this ballet they bring this humanity to the stage. It’s very special to see.

Advice for the Audience
Be aware of the importance of the music, and appreciate what the pianist is playing and listen to how well-crafted each section is. Also, look for the human interactions between the dancers. Everyone is so well-suited for their intended part, and the groups really work so well together as a whole.

I encourage the audience to relax and go with the flow.

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