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Jerome Robbins (photo: Frederic Ohringer)

Jerome Robbins and His World

May 2008

In the late 70’s the director of the Kibbutz Dance Company was in New York and wished to meet with Jerome Robbins, the internationally recognized choreographer, inasmuch as he had been to visit her studio and dancers. Endless telephone calls resulted in no satisfaction. One evening I took her to an all-Robbins program at the New York City Ballet saying, “He is THE American choreographer; all others fade before him.”

At the end of the performance she said, “It is alright if I do not see him. I have seen his work and that is enough.” Robbins finally did call back and apologized for not being able to meet the visitor because he was filming a TV special. When told of her reaction to his dances he said, “I am deeply honored and humbled.” That was an honest statement from a complicated and brilliantly talented man.

This is the 90th anniversary of his birth and the tenth of his death. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has mount ed a Robbins exhibition and the New York City Ballet is dedicating its spring season to him.

The exhibition, curated by Lynn Garafola, is aptly called “New York Story: Jerome Robbins and His World” and focuses on him as a New Yorker - in attitude, rhythm and visual and oral perception. But Jerome Robbins was really a quintessential American, from his Jewish immigrant background, about which he was often ambivalent, to his knowing use of jazz – its syncopation, group and solo relationships and isolated use of the body. He freely combined this with ballet, modern and social dance in works that were cognizant of everyday life and times. One of the things this urban, sophisticated artist abhorred was racism.

Robbins also had the ability to incorporate the form and thinking of classical ballet, although he used space in the inherent American sense of a vast, endless entity. America as subject matter always interested him and the richness of New York City, its energy, rhythms and physical environment, provided much material.. In her biography of Robbins Deborah Jowitt quotes Lincoln Kirstein, who wrote him, “You are an American with an amazing gift for gesture; no one else has it.”  He could be comic, poetic or monumentally serious.

"Jerome Robbins taking a curtain call at the
New York State Theatre, June, 1982" (Photo by Costas)

Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz was born to a family that owned a Harlem delicatessen. He grew up in New Jersey, abandoned his college study of chemistry and began his dance training in New York with Gluck-Sandor and Felicia Sorel of the Dance Center. He studied modern with Charles Weidman and ballet with Ella Dagonova. He also studied acting. After appearing in the Dance Center Company as well as the Yiddish Art Theatre and in performances with the Federal Music and Dance Projects, he joined Ballet Theatre in 1940. He mounted his first ballet, Fancy Free, on this company in 1944. In 1948 he joined the New York City Ballet, under George Balanchine. Over the years he became famous for the many Broadway shows he choreographed, directed and doctored, while at the same time creating ballets for different companies world-wide.

The exhibition is divided into wall sections that cover Broadway, Ballet Theatre, The New York City Ballet and Ballets:USA (his own company). They display photographs, drawings, set and costume designs and posters – many of the first two by Robbins himself. In the vitrines are letters by (he wrote very well) and to him, newspaper and magazine articles and copies of more politically related documents.

There are several items from the correspondence between Robbins and Tanaquil Le Clercq, the ballet dancer whose career was cut short by polio and with whom he had a special relationship. In one from the early 50’s he says he does not want to work only with ballet companies; he likes Broadway shows and feels “warped” doing only one thing.

In a letter to Lucia Chase, co-director of Ballet Theatre, written in 1964 after the demise of Ballets:USA, he says he would consider returning to Ballet Theatre, but only to a “new” one. He wants a company that would combine 10 or 15  modern dancers from the Martha Graham company, 10 or 15 jazz dancers from Ballets:USA  and 50 or 60 from Ballet Theatre. No response is shown.

There is material relating to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins had been a member of the Communist Party from 1944 until 1947. For a long time he lived in fear of HUAC and tried to avoid being called before it, but he appeared on May 5, 1953 and admitted to his membership, as well as being part of several “front” organizations. He said he was attracted by the anti-fascism and the fact that it was against anti-Semitism and left because of the demand for artistic conformity. But he named names without much prompting.

Many were outraged by his actions; others never forgave him. In some ways he never forgave himself. His deepest fear seemed to be that his talent would dry up and his fame disappear. He made tremendous demands upon himself throughout his career and was a perfectionist in every aspect of his life. But the feeling of insecurity never left him and he was afraid of what the committee might reveal and do.

Jerome Robbins and Patricia McBride in rehearsal" (Photo by Martha Swope)
Choreographic ally Robbins gave credit to three influences: Michel Fokine in whose works he danced and under whom he rehearsed at Ballet Theatre, Antony Tudor, the great master of psychology and gesture with whom he worked and studied at Ballet Theatre and George Balanchine. He started as a dancer with the latter, who, recognizing Robbins’ choreographic talent, gave him equal billing and complete artistic freedom at the New York City Ballet.

Ultimately, however, it is the dancing that counts and one can sit and watch excerpts from many works, some of rare footage not seen before. In the Broadway area there is “Cool” from West Side Story, conceived, directed and choreographed by Robbins, in which, for the first time, dance was a means of defining an individual, of establishing character. Combined with the music of Leonard Bernstein, this musical declared loudly and clearly that the brashness, diversity and occasional vulgarity of American culture could produce art. There is also the “Mack Sennett Ballet” from High Button Shoes, a very funny dance of people and doors, where timing is all.

One may also enjoy excerpts from the ballets Fancy Free, The Cage, Goldberg Variations, the witty and humorous “Mistake Waltz” from The Concert and a section from Dances at a Gathering. Created in 1969 to Chopin’s music, this is a completely satisfying work that began as a duet and ended as a piece for 10 dancers. No matter the number of times it has been seen, this viewer can never figure out how he gets his dancers on and off stage, because their relationships and their state of awareness are so compelling and the occasional folk-like step so reassuring, that it is impossible to do anything but watch what is unfolding on stage.

There is also a continuous showing of “Passage For Two,” part of a film adaptation of N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz (1958) with Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall. Filmed outdoors on the High Line, the aim of this still to be completed film is to introduce the work to a new generation in an accessible manner.

Finally there is a section labeled “Robbins At Work” that shows interviews and conversations with him and a wonderful segment where he is rehearsing alone in a studio.

The New York City Ballet is presenting a Jerome Robbins Celebration, stating that “From Broadway to ballet, Jerome Robbins was the most creative and revered choreographer this country has ever produced.” Their spring season, beginning April 27, is dedicated to his artistic achievements and 33 of his ballets will be presented on 10 different programs through June 29. Hint: Dances at a Gathering and The Concert are part of the program Definitive Chopin and Afternoon of a Faun is on French Cuisine.