It's a muggy Tuesday evening, and Anne Mueller is gripping Ronnie Underwood's head between her calves; he writhes in agony as she stabs his ribcage with her pointe shoe and scowls fiercely at his prone form. "Attackers ready!" calls Bart Cook, as three women stride forward, bare their teeth in a silent scream and knife their fingers through the air.
Cook is coaching Oregon Ballet Theatre through its debut of The Cage, one of three Jerome Robbins works on the company's Rush + Robbins season closer (along with Christopher Wheeldon's Rush). Robbins, who died in 1998, is widely considered one of America's greatest choreographers, but he was also a controversial—and in some quarters, despised—figure. The genius behind the joyful movement of Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story also named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the '50s, under threat of being outed as gay. Many people refused to work with him; a famous anecdote has Robbins falling backward from the stage to the orchestra pit, with nobody offering to help.
Cook, Robbins' former muse and choreographic assistant who was once written out of Robbins' will, began dancing Robbins' work shortly after joining New York City Ballet in 1971. It was a mixed blessing: "He was very demanding and very inspiring, but in a way that could feel injurious," Cook says. "You would suffer through the rehearsal to be in this wonderful work."
And much of it is wonderful, in part because Robbins was not only vying for primacy with George Balanchine ("They were envious of each others' ability," Cook says), he was forever trying to top his own early successes. Even as the '50s political turmoil was roiling, Robbins produced Afternoon of a Faun, a sensual duet between young narcissists; The Concert, a comic romp about bad behavior; and The Cage, a war of the sexes in which insectlike females destroy their mates. And now, audiences will get a clearer picture of Robbins'—and OBT's—many facets. The piece sparked controversy at its debut, and OBT Artistic Director Christopher Stowell wonders if it still has the power to incite viewers: "Maybe some girls will say, 'My boyfriend was an ass to me tonight, and that was just what I had in mind.'"
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 222-5538. 7:30 pm Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, June 5-7. $15-127.