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The Dance Master

The Legacy of Jerome Robbins

By Maya Dalinsky | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

Choreographer Jerome Robbins put dance at the center of the American musical. When Agnes De Mille choreographed Oklahoma! in 1943, she revolutionized musical theater by making ballet and modern dance part of the character and plot development. Yet even in the show's dream ballet, the scene is set apart from the environment the characters live in, and stand-in dancers perform their roles. Robbins, who learned from De Mille as a dancer in Oklahoma!, would go on to make musicals where the leads danced and sang and acted, and the dancing moved the plot as much as the lyrics.

Robbins's innovative approach began with Fancy Free, his 1944 ballet about three sailors on shore leave in New York City during World War II. "What Fancy Free did most impressively," writes dance critic Marcia Siegel, "was to integrate classical and colloquial dances within a context of carefully observed characters. . . . Robbins achieved it for the first time in a contemporary ballet. He gave gesture and the acting of real people the same validity on the concert stage that Fred Astaire gave to dancing in the quasi-realistic milieu of movie romances." Fancy Free was Robbins's first collaboration with the up-and-coming composer Leonard Bernstein, and it played 160 performances in its opening season. The same year, the ballet was transformed into the Broadway musical On the Town and established Robbins and Bernstein as formidable talents in American theater.

In a career that lasted six decades, Jerome Robbins choreographed for Broadway, film, and two major American ballet companies. He developed and choreographed some of the most popular American musicals--West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof--and was sent in to rescue shows on the edge of disaster such as A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Funny Girl. He collaborated with Agnes De Mille, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and George Balanchine, and his protégés, including Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, would become stars of Broadway.

Near the end of his career, Robbins staged an extravaganza of his best Broadway work in an effort to preserve the original staging and choreography. His ballets were already well documented with video and notes, but there were no records of his musicals, and memories were fading. Robbins wanted to make sure the choreography was not lost, yet even he could not remember all the details of the original productions. "'On a Sunday by the Sea,' from High Button Shoes was particularly difficult to reconstruct," writes Robert Emmet Long in his book Broadway, The Golden Years, "until one of the original performers, Keven Joe Johnson, appeared with a manila folder of notes on the dance that he had jotted down forty year earlier. . . . Robbins made an exhaustive search for anything pertaining to the shows--old scripts, newspaper photos, musical recordings, rare kinescopes, footage from cameras brought into the theater surreptitiously by theater-goers."

The result from the 1987 production of Jerome Robbins' Broadway is that fifteen of his best-known theater works are now preserved in the New York Public Library, along with his photographs, recordings, and papers, which were left to the collection after his death in 1998. Named in his honor, the Jerome Robbins Dance Division is home to the largest collection of dance materials in the world--where stage designs, photographs, notes, books, video recordings, papers, sketchbooks, and other ephemera that make up the history of dance are preserved and made accessible.

With a recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dance Division will continue its cataloging of Robbins's bequest. It includes forty-two scrapbooks, 229 engravings and costume designs, 762 videotapes, and more than one hundred hours of audio recordings of Robbins talking about the creative process.

Included in the project is the digitization of photographs pertaining to his work, the preservation of audio and visual media, and the cataloging, standardizing, and cross-referencing of Robbins's numerous office files and scrapbooks. "Jerry was always working," says Madeleine Nichols, head curator of the division. "His brain was always working. When people examine the number of areas he was interested in and experimented in, they find he was far more of a diverse creator than expected."

Robbins began as a dancer, following his sister Sonia from Weehawken, New Jersey, to New York City, where she danced at Irma Duncan and Senya Gluck-Sandor's Dance Center. Robbins observed classes until he was eventually taken on as a company apprentice. By the late 1930s he was performing with the Dance Center and was versed in Asian dance traditions, flamenco, and classical ballet.

Gluck-Sandor noticed Robbins's varied talents. "He was eighteen or nineteen at the time. I needed a copy of Hamlet and borrowed his. Besides his notes, the margins were full of music he composed. He was always writing stories. He did wood carving and also drew. He had what you might call a photographic memory. Once he saw something, he could do it backwards."

Robbins was ambitious, and although he danced with the newly formed Ballet Theater and worked in several Broadway shows, he desperately wanted to choreograph. He spent his summers at Tamiment, a resort in the Poconos that was known as a springboard for emerging talent. It was run by Max Liebman, who would go on to produce the television program Your Show of Shows, and brought up entertainers such as Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, and Carol Channing. At Taminent, Robbins was able to stage his first pieces, among them a version of Thorton Wilder's Our Town, which would go on to Broadway as part of Liebman's Straw Hat Revue in 1939. "Although he received no credit for having choreographed them," writes Long, "he did manage to have his choreographic work presented on a Broadway stage by the time he was twenty."

Robbins went on to create or direct fifteen musicals, choreograph sixty-six ballets, and establish two dance companies. Along the way, two events had far-reaching effects on his career: joining New York City Ballet in 1948, where he would eventually share the title of artistic director with George Balanchine, and making West Side Story in 1957.

The impetus for West Side Story had come almost a decade earlier when Robbins brought the idea of a contemporary Romeo and Juliet to Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents. The project stalled for several years until an article in the Los Angeles Times about gang violence renewed their interest. Instead of star-crossed lovers of Jewish and Irish Catholic descent, as Robbins had originally suggested, the protagonists became a Polish-American boy and a Puerto Rican girl in New York City. Bernstein brought in the untried Stephen Sondheim to write the lyrics.

"As its choreographer-director," writes Long, "Robbins was indispensable and in absolute control of West Side Story; and under his supervision dance came to have an ever greater and more important role in the musical." Every performer had to be a dancer. He cast dancers Carole Lawrence and Larry Kert over opera-trained singers Anna Maria Alberghetti and Frank Poretta. He rid the choreography of classical ballet and strove to have his cast move and look like street kids. The prologue, a scene that usually would have a song or dialog to introduce the characters, became just dance. "Robbins made the whole show like a long ballet," says choreographer Peter Gennaro. Long writes, "In West Side Story there is no dance portion of the show; it is all dance, all movement."

Robbins expected his cast to live their parts, using only their characters' names during rehearsal and sitting with their fellow gang members for lunch. The character named Anybodys, a girl who was shut out from being a Jet, was forced to eat alone. And Robbins insisted on eight weeks of rehearsal when four was the norm.

"Jerry Robbins is an incredible man, and I'd work with him in a minute," says Kert, "but he is a perfectionist who sees himself in every role, and if you come onstage and don't give him exactly what he's pictured the night before, his tolerance level is too low, so in his own way, he destroys you."

No one was out of Robbins's range, including his dear friends and fellow creators. Carole Lawrence remembers "one morning when we were rehearsing in Washington, Jerry asked Lenny to change something in the Scherzo. . . . We were all sitting on the floor and Lenny brought out the score and played it for us and it was beautiful. And Jerry turned and said: 'That's worse than you had before. Go write it again.'"

Robbins's perfectionist streak ran into trouble when he directed the 1961 film version of West Side Story. He took too much time and went over budget trying to film the scenes on the streets of New York. After he left the project, veteran Hollywood director Robert Wise took over and moved the scenes back into a studio in California. The film ended up winning ten Academy Awards, including one for Robbins as best director.

While Robbins was working in musical theater, he continued to create works for the concert stage and formed his own experimental ballet company called Ballet U.S.A. In 1969, Robbins left theater work and returned to the New York City Ballet after a ten-year leave of absence. It was a prolific period, and he created twenty-two new ballets in the 1970s alone, including many that are still in the company's repertory, such as The Goldberg Variations and Dances at a Gathering. After Balanchine died in 1983, Robbins continued for a while as artistic director with Peter Martins. Although Robbins officially retired in 1988, he choreographed a solo work in 1994 for Mikhail Baryshnikov called A Suite of Dances. "He would show me one of those combinations that are so his, and so beautiful," says Baryshnikov, "the twists of the shoulder, the open, relaxed steps gradually changing into smaller, more delicate movements."

Robbins's legacy, stresses Nichols, lies not just in the body of work he left behind, but in his contributions to the development of the dance world. "He was constantly working to create a tangible history for dance," says Nichols. Robbins used a percentage of the royalties made from Fiddler on the Roof to support the dance collection at the Library. He played an important role in the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts and set up organizations for dancers' security and health such as the New York City Ballet Emergency Fund. He promoted international dance groups and folk dance and encouraged young choreographers.

Beyond all that, Robbins helped establish a new vocabulary for American dance. "He put a human face and a Yankee accent on classic choreography," wrote critic Clive Barnes for Dance Magazine in 1998. From an exuberant sailor to a stripper with a trumpet, from a New York gang member to a classical soloist, Robbins showcased the movement of Everyman. Robbins said, "The possibilities of the human body are endless. Why not use them all? Why limit ourselves to a set language which, in spite of its good qualities, is no longer fit to express the feelings and problems of today?"

About the Author

Maya Dalinsky is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland.

Funding Information

The New York Public Library received $256,206 from NEH to process, rehouse, and reformat materials in the Jerome Robbins Collection.