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Jerome Robbins (1918-1998)

By Imogen Sara Smith  

Jerome Robbins was a choreographer of wide-ranging, prolific, and complex genius who left a lasting imprint on both musical theater and American ballet. He remains best known for the Broadway musical West Side Story, which epitomizes the modernity, urban edge, passion, and inventiveness that took audiences by storm beginning with Robbins’s first ballet, Fancy Free, in 1944. His career as a choreographer began with his desire to create ballets on contemporary American subjects, and he went on to redefine theater dance as an integrated, dramatic element of musicals, setting out to demonstrate that artists like himself and composer Leonard Bernstein need not divide their “artistic” from their commercial works, but could create at their highest level for the Broadway stage. Finding a home at New York City Ballet (NYCB), Robbins made ballets in a wide variety of styles: classical, comic, dramatic, abstract, intimate, spectacular, modern, and traditional. With a broad and restlessly searching intellect, he continually explored new influences and ideas. Though his working process was often painful, both for his dancers and collaborators and for himself, the results at their best were vibrant, original dance works that express the essential meaning and magic of theater.

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Robbins was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz on October 11, 1918, in Manhattan. He grew up mainly in Weehawken, New Jersey, where his parents Harry and Lena, Russian Jewish immigrants, ran a corset factory. For Robbins, a multi-talented child who studied piano, wrote poetry, and loved puppetry, the arts represented “a tunnel,” as he once told an interviewer, leading to a wider world. His older sister Sonia was a dancer, and when he was eighteen she introduced him to choreographer and teacher Senia Gluck-Sandor, who took Robbins on as an apprentice in his modern dance company, Dance Center. (It was at this point that he changed his name, trying out a number of variations before settling on Jerome Robbins.) Sandor’s theatrical, eclectic, expressionistic style was a strong influence on Robbins’s development. Despite starting his training very late for a dancer, Robbins became fiercely determined on a career in dance and began studying ballet. Even before he acquired professional technique, his dramatic ability earned him roles in musical theater productions on Broadway, where he danced for George Balanchine. From the beginning he was also interested in choreography, and got his start devising and staging entertainments—often comic or politically engaged—at Camp Tamiment, a left-wing resort in the Poconos.

In 1939, Robbins joined the corps de ballet of Ballet Theatre (later American Ballet Theatre), where he soon drew notice for comic and character roles. He worked under choreographers Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, Michel Fokine and Léonide Massine; he was celebrated for his performance in the title role in Fokine’s Petrouchka, a ballet with deep personal resonance for him. In 1944, after many attempts, Robbins finally convinced the directors of Ballet Theatre to let him choreograph a ballet for the company. Fancy Free, which had a cast of seven and an original score by then-little-known Leonard Bernstein, might have been a modest beginning, but it was such a smash hit that it changed Robbins’s life overnight. A simple wartime tale of three sailors on leave in New York trying to pick up girls and dancing competitively to win them, Fancy Free was exuberant, all-American, and infused with the vernacular dance styles of the time. Most importantly, it displayed a unique gift for dramatically expressive yet spontaneously natural movement.

At just twenty-five, Robbins, who had always felt himself an outsider, became one of the most sought-after choreographers in the American theater. With Bernstein and the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, he turned Fancy Free into a successful Broadway musical, On the Town (1945). For the next twenty years, Robbins shuttled back and forth between Broadway and the ballet. He was the outstanding choreographer and director of musicals during these years, turning out enduring hits like The King and I (1951), Peter Pan (1954), Gypsy (1959), and the two shows for which he remains best known, West Side Story (1955) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). The former, another collaboration with Bernstein, broke ground with its serious contemporary subject matter—gang violence and racial intolerance—and its use of dance to convey setting, character, and plot development. Fiddler on the Roof, set in a Russian Jewish shtetl, was Robbins’s emotional return to the cultural and religious background with which he had an ambivalent relationship throughout his life. During the 1950s, Robbins also worked on television specials and on film versions of his shows, including West Side Story (1957), for which he won two Academy Awards.

Broadway brought Robbins fame and financial success, but he was drained by the stress of commercial demands, collaboration, and battling egos. In addition, his decision to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, admitting his former membership in the Communist Party and naming other members, aroused controversy and hostility. Some actors with whom he worked on Broadway, such as Zero Mostel, openly denounced him as a traitor, and his testimony caused rifts with close friends and family members. He acted under extreme pressure and in fear of losing his career and being publicly exposed as a homosexual, but the decision remained a source of inner turmoil for the rest of his life.

He found refuge in the world of ballet, where he had greater artistic freedom and a less fraught working environment. In 1948, he wrote to George Balanchine expressing his desire to work with New York City Ballet after seeing the company dance Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Robbins was invited to join the company as a dancer and choreographer and was soon made associate artistic director. Balanchine cast him in a revival of The Prodigal Son and created roles for him in new works like Tyl Ulenspiegel. During this period, Robbins created some of his finest ballets including The Cage (1951), Afternoon of a Faun (1953), and the satirical-absurdist classic The Concert (1956). In 1958, Robbins left NYCB to form his own company, Ballets: U.S.A., which toured under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State. Performing a mix of existing and new works such as N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz (1958) and Moves (1959), Ballets: U.S.A. was hugely successful in Europe, and also made several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. In the 1960s, Robbins directed straight dramatic works and formed the American Theatre Lab, a group that experimented with improvisation, Noh drama, and non-traditional performance styles, but did not produce work publicly.

In 1969, Robbins celebrated his return to New York City Ballet by creating Dances at a Gathering, a plotless ballet to Chopin piano music that marked the start of an outpouring of creativity. He would remain at NYCB for the rest of his career, creating ambitious ballets like the monumental The Goldberg Variations (1971) and the Noh-inspired Watermill (1972), as well as popular and critical triumphs like In the Night (1970), The Four Seasons (1979), and Glass Pieces (1983). After Balanchine’s death in 1983, Robbins became co-artistic director of NYCB with Peter Martins, and he continued to create ballets for the company through the 1990s. In 1989, he mounted Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, a look back at the highlights of his career in theater. His legacy also encompasses his long-time support of the Dance Division of the New York Public Library, which was renamed in his honor, and his creation of the Jerome Robbins Foundation, which supports the performing arts field and the fight against AIDS. Jerome Robbins died of a stroke on July 29, 1998.

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Robbins’s dual career resulted in a fertile cross-pollination between ballet and commercial theater. He brought an authentic American style to a European art form, and helped to elevate dance in musical theater from pure entertainment unconnected to the story—lines of hoofing chorines, specialty turns by stars—into a vehicle for defining character and advancing the story. His Broadway dances always expressed dramatic content and evoked rich, fully imagined worlds—whether the court of Siam or the gritty, gang-run streets of New York. Robbins had a particular gift for choreography that allowed men to look modern, masculine, even tough, without sacrificing lyricism; and also a brilliant knack for choreographing for performers who were not trained dancers. He always pushed his dancers toward a style that looked easy and natural, yet completely engaged. He instructed members of the corps de ballet to dance as though they were the leads, and principals to dance for each other, not for the audience; he stressed the importance of imagination and dramatic involvement beyond technique, and often favored the look of “marking” (not dancing full out) over excessively polished presentation. He also had a rare talent for comedy, ranging from slapstick to moments of dry wit.

Some critics, including Joan Acocella and Arlene Croce, felt that Robbins’s true gift was theatrical, and that his abstract ballets were weaker than his Broadway works. While he reigned supreme on Broadway, ballet critics were often harder on him. He is widely considered the greatest native-born American ballet choreographer, but he chose to spend most of his career at New York City Ballet, where he would always face comparison to Balanchine. He accepted a secondary status because of his great respect for Balanchine and love for the company, and Balanchine recognized that Robbins brought valuable diversity to the repertory.

Robbins’s early ballets tend to follow narrative scenarios: the female lead in The Cage must kill her lover in order to be initiated into her Amazonian tribe; the young ballet students in Afternoon of a Faun explore a fleeting romantic encounter that hovers between genuine feeling and mirror-bound, self-absorbed performance. In many of his later works, Robbins stripped away narrative and resisted referential interpretations. All of his works are inspired chiefly by a deep engagement with music, especially that of Chopin and Bach.

A central theme that runs through Jerome Robbins’s work is the nature of communities: gangs, villages, tribes, intimate groups of friends, loose urban societies. Among performers he had a fearsome reputation as a taskmaster, and his feelings about his own identity—particularly his religious and family background and his sexual orientation—were complicated, conflicted, and insecure. In his choreography, however, he created moving portraits of friendship, kinship, courtesy, and resilient communal bonds. In Dances at a Gathering he presents a shifting array of relationships—humorous, affectionate, competitive, flirtatious, introspective, stormy—among men and women rooted in an organic society and in the natural world. Ultimately, the communities that Robbins created onstage all refer back to the family of dancers, united by their dedication to the most rigorous of arts.


Imogen Sara Smith is the Project Manager for the Dance Heritage Coalition, and has almost ten years’ experience working in dance archives. As an independent film scholar, she is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, and Buster Keaton: the Persistence of Comedy, and she writes regularly on film and the arts for a variety of journals and websites.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Conrad, Christine. Jerome Robbins: That Broadway Man, That Ballet Man. London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2000.

Jerome Robbins: a Life in Dance. New York, N.Y. : Stage Directors & Choreographers Foundation, Inc., 1998.

Jowitt, Deborah. Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Ramsay, Christopher, ed. Tributes: Celebrating Fifty Years of New York City Ballet. New York: W. Morrow, 1998.

Vail, Amanda. Somewhere: the Life of Jerome Robbins. New York: Broadway Books, 2006.

Online Resources

The Jerome Robbins Foundation website includes a complete chronology of Robbins’s works, biographical and critical essays, and information on current activities of the Foundation, as well as contact information for the Robbins Rights Trust: http://jeromerobbins.org/

Moving Image

Robbins’s archive, which he willed to The Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, is processed as the Jerome Robbins Collection (all items are distinguished by the “JRC” suffix in the classmark.) The collection includes hundreds of videos and films documenting rehearsals and performances of Robbins’s works, home movies, interviews, television programs, and recordings of sessions at the American Theatre Lab. The Dance Division also holds an extensive collection of sound recordings, including interviews, rehearsals, audio notebooks, and radio programs. Some items require permission of the Robbins Rights Trust to view or audit. http://catalog.nypl.org/search~S1/?searchtype=X&searcharg=jerome+robbins+collection

Commercially available:

Fiddler on the Roof. Prod. and dir. Norman Jewison. DVD. 1971.

Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. Written by Amanda Vaill; produced & directed by Judy Kinberg; produced by Thirteen/WNET American Masters, 2008.

N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz. Dir. Jody Lee Lipes, Henry Joost. DVD 2010.

West Side Story. Dir. Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise. Prod. Mirisch Corporation. DVD. 1961.

Archives

The Jerome Robbins Papers at the Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts also include correspondence, choreographic notes, journals, artworks, scripts, scores, designs, contracts, and financial records. Some material requires permission from the Robbins Rights Trust to view.

http://archives.nypl.org/dan/19771