The predatory female insect in The Cage (Laetitia Pujol, Paris Opera Ballet)
Jerome Robbins was caught between the moon and New York City. The first quintessentially American choreographer, he fulfilled the American dream without ever fitting it: a small-town boy who made it big in ballet and on Broadway, he was also a self-proclaimed “Jewish ex-commie fag who had to go into a mental hospital”.
Born Jerome Rabinowitz in 1918, he grew up in New Jersey and studied a range of dance styles including ballet, modern, Spanish, oriental and interpretive. After performing in several musicals, he joined Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) in 1940, where he made his first piece at the age of 25, with a score by the equally young and unknown Leonard Bernstein. Fancy Free, a story of sailors on shore leave, melded jazz, popular and classical styles. It caused a sensation (22 curtain calls on the first night) and catapulted Robbins and Bernstein to fame and fortune. It was quickly turned into a big Broadway musical, On the Town, and then an even bigger Hollywood film, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
Robbins became the most sought-after choreographer on Broadway. He worked on a string of hits, many of which became films: The King and I, The Pajama Game, Gypsy, Fiddler On the Roof and, most famous of all, West Side Story. At the same time, he continued in ballet, first with Ballet Theatre and, from 1948, with New York City Ballet. At a time when many people doubted that ballet could ever be an American art, Robbins made it one: his choreography encompassed contemporary neuroses, street style, urban cool and pretension-puncturing comedy. Robbins soon became not only king of Broadway, but also the first American-born ballet choreographer of international standing.
He was, however, tortured by doubts and insecurities. During the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, he was hauled before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, where he confessed to having been a communist. Fearful for his career and of public exposure of his sexuality (Montgomery Clift was a former lover), Robbins then named eight other members. Many people, including some of his family, never forgave him and he was guilt-stricken.
After Fiddler On the Roof in 1964, Robbins left musical theatre for good. He directed some straight theatre and quit ballet in 1966, establishing the small-scale – and short-lived – American Theatre Lab to explore experimental drama. He returned to New York City Ballet three years later with Dances at a Gathering, one of his best-loved works, and never left. His style became increasingly abstract and classical, perhaps under the influence of his great idol George Balanchine, who headed the company. On Balanchine’s death in 1983, Robbins was appointed artistic director (alongside Peter Martins). He retired in 1990 and continued to work on individual projects. He died of a stroke in 1998.
Watching Jerome Robbins
Robbins’s work is astonishingly varied. In many musicals, he integrated dance seamlessly with character, story and music. In the limpid Afternoon of a Faun, he emphasised the artifice. He has often matched movement closely to music, such as the piano pieces Dances at a Gathering or In the Night. He’s also worked with no music (Moves, 1959) and with almost no movement (Watermill, 1972). He can be serious and symbolic (Les Noces, 1965), but also comic (The Concert is a send-up that surely inspired the Trocks). His late works are more abstract; his early ones more story- or character-led. He loved academic ballet, but he also used popular styles and everyday movements.
Robbins reflected the zeitgeist: he picked up bits of psychodrama and existentialism in the 40s and 50s, then cool jazz and avant-garde experimentalism in the 60s, later some peace and love, zen and minimalism. He often liked the dancing – whether jazzy or classical – to emerge naturally from walking or strolling. You see it in the fantastic opening sequence from West Side Story and in many of his ballets.
No matter how abstract the work, you always sense an undertow of character and feeling in Robbins’s work. In his autobiographical work, The Poppa Piece, he confronted his own ghosts: Jewishness, bisexuality, family, betrayal, guilt. It was never shown: Robbins never finished it.
George Balanchine was the choreographer Robbins most admired. But in terms of personal background and stylistic interest, Robbins had more in common with his contemporary Leonard Bernstein, with whom he worked several times.
When Robbins finally approved the Cool routine for the West Side Story film, the dancers – trying to ensure they wouldn’t have to do yet another take – burned their kneepads outside his office. It’s one of countless incidents during Robbins’s career that showed him to be a harsh taskmaster.
In his own words
“Why can’t we dance about American subjects? Why can’t we talk about the way we dance today and how we are now?” – Quoted in Humanities, Jan/Feb 2009
“Essentially what I care about is working … I don’t want to fall into profundities and artistry and surround everything with whipped cream.” – Robbins in B Newman’s Striking a Balance
In other words
“Above all, he was a very American choreographer … But unlike others who created ballets with pioneers and cowboys, Mr Robbins did not indulge in ‘Americana’. He was not concerned with the myth of America but with its reality. This genius for capturing the essence of an age was the Robbins signature.” – Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times, 1998
“Robbins sought to turn the humble musical comedy into something approaching a totally unified work of art.” – Terry Teachout, New York Times, 2001
“There are two choreographers inside Jerome Robbins: the breezy Broadway showman, and the introverted artist drawn to dark spaces and dark moods. Sometimes, it is hard to understand how they connect.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2008
“He liked to be in America?”
Better still, sing it.
“He was really a Broadway man” or “He was a really a ballet man”.
He was both, OK?
Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp are among the few choreographers who also crossed easily between ballet and Broadway. Bob Fosse and Susan Stroman are big-name Broadway choreographers who admired Robbins. From the ballet world, Christopher Wheeldon is a fan.
Now watch this
Urban energy: a scene from West Side Story at the Tony awards in 1989
Musical comedy – in ballet, not on Broadway: The Concert (Paris Opera Ballet)
Excerpts from Glass Pieces, with dancers’ commentary (New York City Ballet)
The strange, stylised erotics of Afternoon of a Faun: Jacques d’Amboise and Tanaquil LeClercq from the New York City Ballet in 1955