Reclaiming ‘The Dybbuk’


By Joseph Carman

Published April 01, 2005, issue of April 01, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In 1974 Jerome Robbins premiered an enigmatic choreographic work, “The Dybbuk,” for New York City Ballet. A collaboration with Leonard Bernstein, it was based loosely on the play of the same name by S. Ansky about spirit possession and exorcism. On April 5 at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Ballet will revive the ballet, which has not been danced for a quarter of a century.

Robbins was long obsessed with the idea of creating a ballet based on the idea of the dybbuk, a spirit of a dead person who enters the body of a living human. “Dybbuk, Dybbuk, Dybbuk,” Robbins wrote in a letter to Bernstein in 1958. “I’m sending over an unseen but continually haunting prodder who will creep into your sleep and into your spare moments and will say the words Dybbuk, Dybbuk, Dybbuk. With this ghost’s effort, I know that suddenly something will be on paper that will get us all started.”

Ansky’s play, containing elements reminiscent of both “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Exorcist,” provided the source material for the ballet, which Robbins’s choreography and Bernstein’s music referenced without overtly literalizing it. The story concerns Leah and Chanon, whose fathers have pledged that their children will marry each other. When Leah’s father breaks the vow so that she can marry a wealthier suitor, heartbroken Chanon, a devout Orthodox theological student, delves dangerously into Kabbalah, becomes overwhelmed by his practices, faints and dies. At Leah’s wedding, Chanon’s spirit inhabits her body; in the act of exorcism, the dybbuk flees, but Leah dies and her spirit joins her beloved.

Robbins never intended simply to recycle the story, but, in his own words, he saw his ballet “as a point of departure for a series of related dances concerning rituals and hallucinations which are present in the dark magico-religious ambiance of the play and in the obsessions of its characters.” Divided into 11 sections, with names such as “In the Holy Place,” “Invocation of the Kabbala,” “Possession” and “Exorcism,” the choreography occasionally suggests Jewish folk movement, while retaining the vocabulary of ballet. Highlights include a dance for seven male elders, at times assuming the shape of a menorah, and a chilling pas de deux depicting the dybbuk’s possession of the girl.

At the 1974 premiere, critics either adored the collaborative experiment or dismissed it as lacking the searing emotionalism of the play. Nonetheless, Newsweek hailed it as “the loving handiwork of inspired men,” and composer Ned Rorem called Bernstein’s score his “best music to date.” (Bernstein’s commissioned composition utilized a mathematical sequence, based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with 18s and 36s within the octave range.) But Robbins, disappointed by the reception of the work, kept editing the ballet into abstraction — even changing the name to “Dybbuk Variations” — until New York City Ballet finally dropped it from the repertoire in 1980.

“I kept wondering, ‘Why didn’t Jerry bring this work back?’” said Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, who danced the male lead at the world premiere of “The Dybbuk.” Tomasson, now in his 20th year with San Francisco Ballet, had his own suspicions. Two years before “The Dybbuk” premiered, New York City Ballet had scored a huge success with its Stravinsky Festival, in which George Balanchine prolifically turned out neo-classical, abstract works, many of which have become modern-day classics.

“I think in some ways ,when Jerry did ‘The Dybbuk,’ which was very dark and dramatic, people were perplexed,” Tomasson said. “Some who wrote about the ballet felt he had not followed the story exactly. I suspect that’s why he started to modify it. I think it upset him — he was hurt. But I think we should give the audience a chance to view it again and see what their take is.”

Throughout his existence, Robbins experienced conflict about the role that Judaism played in his life and creativity. He had triumphed with “Fiddler on the Roof,” and his 1965 ballet “Les Noces” about a Russian Jewish wedding was widely praised. But his decision to gut “The Dybbuk” and finally abandon it could have resulted from a personal feeling of failure to communicate in dance form the essence of an esteemed piece of Jewish theater. Robbins, who died in 1998, never tackled another Jewish theme in his choreography. And he never collaborated with Bernstein again.

In a 1974 Newsweek article, Robbins and Bernstein discussed their inspirations for “The Dybbuk.” Robbins claimed, “Choosing ‘The Dybbuk’ had nothing to do with my being Jewish.” Bernstein countered with: “In a larger sense, what we’ve had is based on our experience of Jewishness. Isn’t that right, Jerry?” Robbins paused and said, “I don’t know,” and then smiled and added, “But we are what we are, and that feeds into it.”

Joseph Carman is the author of “Round About the Ballet”(Limelight Editions, 2004).

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.