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Dancing American

Jerome Robbins built a new style from classical and modern parts

By Pia Catton | HUMANITIES, January/February 2009 | Volume 30, Number 1

When the curtain goes up on Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free, the audience gazes at a set that evokes New York City in the 1940s: a quiet corner, an empty bar, a lamppost. A recording of a blues singer plays in the background. But the lonely mood doesn’t last. From down in the orchestra pit comes a sudden staccato beat-beat-beat as a trio of sailors bursts onto the stage. These fellows swagger into town for a night of joking, drinking, and skirt-chasing—expressed entirely through dance.

The premiere of Fancy Free, on April 18, 1944, catapulted the twenty-five-year-old Robbins (who also danced in the original cast) to stardom. He had created a category-defying ballet drawn from real American life: wartime New York was teeming with young men in uniform and gals in swishy dresses. He wasn’t the first choreographer to find inspiration in the common man, but he was at the red-hot center of a new approach to dance. From ballet to the musical theater, choreographers on these shores were creating works that did not always look to the past, but instead to the present and future. It was a heady time, and it was the beginning of a distinctly American era in dance.

Fancy Free did not appear out of thin air. Robbins created it while employed as a dancer in the touring Ballet Theatre, which had been founded in 1940 and was fertile ground for stage artists. Though the company presented classical ballets, it encouraged new work. As a young dancer, Robbins had studio time with a wealth of choreographers—Michel Fokine, Agnes de Mille, and Antony Tudor—who came to Ballet Theatre to teach, choreograph, and stage their work. It wasn’t until 1956 that the company came to be known as American Ballet Theatre, but even in its early days, its mission was to establish a national and international reputation for ballets made here.

Not long after joining Ballet Theatre, Robbins was itching to choreograph, as a new NEH-funded documentary, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About (debuting February 18 on PBS)—written by Robbins biographer Amanda Vaill and produced by Judy Kinberg—makes clear. Soon though, Ballet Theatre, suffering from financial trouble, brought in a Russian management company to run things, and the results were distinctly Old World. As Robbins said in an interview, “I got tired of dancing a whole year in boots, bloomers, and a wig. I said ‘Why can’t we dance about American subjects? Why can’t we talk about the way we dance today and how we are now?’”

Good question. The art form was stuck in grandiose territory. “Ballet was strictly an operatic spectacle,” as the current artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, Kevin McKenzie, said at his company’s recent celebration of Tudor’s works. “There was a lot of use of allegory and symbolism. Pretty much everyone was dead or a fairy or a swan or a mythical beast of some form.”

But the rules, and the roles, were changing. De Mille had debuted the Western-themed Rodeo in 1942 for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House. Her Three Virgins and a Devil is set in medieval times, but the personalities of the three leading ladies—greedy, priggish, lustful—all strike a modern note. Ballet Theatre first danced it in 1941, with Robbins in the original cast. In 1942, Tudor created Pillar of Fire for Ballet Theatre, which took up sexual issues with smoldering realism. Robbins, again, was in the original cast.

From this crucible emerged Fancy Free, with its jazzy score by the then-unknown Leonard Bernstein and iconic set by Oliver Smith. In the one-act plot, the three chummy sailors befriend two girls, but as there aren’t enough girls to go around, the boys challenge each other to a dance-off. Robbins designed the three solos to suit the different talents of the dancers, himself and two close friends. His innovation was to make the dance and story seamless; the movements tell the story and enhance our understanding of the characters.

By embracing American subjects, Robbins found a plentiful source for ideas that could be made into musical theater. And he didn’t just make shows; he made hits. Fancy Free became the basis for the musical On the Town, which features three cheery sailors and celebrates the verve of New York City. It opened just nine months after the ballet to rave reviews, making Robbins the go-to man on Broadway. By 1954, when he signed on for The Pajama Game—a romance set in a factory full of union workers trying to get a raise—he was powerful enough to demand a codirector credit alongside the famed George Abbott. For West Side Story, which is his greatest triumph, he wanted the issues of immigration and youth culture to burn on stage. To add an authentic layer of tension between the two warring Manhattan gangs, he insisted that the cast members write their characters’ bios and keep to their own turf; offstage, the actors playing the Jets and the Sharks were not allowed to socialize with the other gang. In 1964, Robbins drew on his immigrant Russian-Jewish roots for Fiddler on the Roof, which addressed the tensions arising from the competing interests of assimilation, progress, and tradition. Fiddler’s success has a lasting legacy: With percentages of the earnings from that show, Robbins established one of the collections at the heart of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Robbins’s ultimate talent was in his ability to communicate ideas in movement—with his own style. In ballet and on Broadway, Robbins set a new course that was essential to the development of American dance. That point cannot be made without comparison with Europe, where ballet companies were often established under the rubric of opera companies and sustained by royal or governmental patronage. In the opera house system, ballet was taught according to a strict technique that created a specific identity with a long-standing tradition. The Paris Opera Ballet has a different style from Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, which was trained to look quite different from the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg.

Without these temples of tradition, American dancers pieced their training together. This intersection of different styles and techniques gave the dancers a different instrument from their European or Russian counterparts. Robbins’s early life provides a classic example. Raised in Weehawken, New Jersey, he was one of two children in a hard-working Russian-Jewish family. His sister, Sonia, studied dance with the devotees of Isadora Duncan and performed with the expressionist troupe led by Gluck Sandor. Robbins followed suit and studied the same Duncan technique, but his first formal training was in the style of Martha Graham. He later landed work as an apprentice in Sandor’s company, and as Amanda Vaill notes in Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, it wasn’t until the fall of 1937 that he was advised to study ballet. That didn’t sit well with the young dancer. Vaill writes, “In America, as opposed to decadent Old Europe, modern dance—which had evolved out of a peculiar confluence of theatrical dancing, physical culture, antibourgeois aesthetics, and female emancipation—was the thing.”

Even so, American ballet was gaining ground. George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein were busy laying the foundation for a new tradition of ballet in America—one that would take all these different strands and create something pure. Balanchine, a Russian émigré who had trained in St. Petersburg and spent several years creating new ballets with Sergei Diaghilev in France, came to America at Kirstein’s suggestion in 1933. Kirstein, an Ivy Leaguer with a passion for the arts, was determined to establish a domestic ballet company with its own repertory—as opposed to one that relied on imported ballets and dancers.

Where would the dancers for such a company come from? Realizing the difficulty of starting a company without dancers trained to his tastes, Balanchine famously cautioned Kirstein, “But first, a school.” The School of American Ballet opened in January 1934 and by June of that year, the school gave its first performance, which was held on the White Plains, New York, estate of one of its benefactors. The ballet Balanchine created for that first program, Serenade, would become one of his signature works. It was the first ballet he created in America with American dancers, and it was initially intended as a teaching exercise. “It seemed to me that the best way to make students aware of stage technique was to give them something new to dance, something they had never seen before,” Balanchine wrote in 101 Stories of the Great Ballets.

The simplicity, unusual patterns, and mysterious mood in Serenade make it a captivating work and one that set an aesthetic course for the company Balanchine and Kirstein would form. Though the ballet offers hints of a narrative, its beauty lies in the connection to the music. “The only story is the music’s story, a serenade, a dance if you like, in the light of the moon,” Balanchine said.

There would be much more to come. It took several years for Kirstein and Balanchine to put their company on a firm footing, but on October 11, 1948, New York City Ballet gave its first performance, establishing a company with a modern interpretation of a classical art form. Robbins, duly impressed by Balanchine’s work, joined City Ballet in 1949 as associate artistic director. The two creative geniuses differed significantly in what they produced and how. “They were night and day,” says the head of New York City Ballet, Peter Martins. But they shared an ability to advance the form.

Balanchine, who choreographed and made decisions quickly, created ballets that used classical vocabulary but were stripped of nineteenth-century convention. No courts and castles, no stories, no mime. For his abstract ballets, Balanchine all but abandoned costumes, sending his dancers out in leotards and tights. Even in ballets that have rows and rows of girls in white tutus—notably Symphony in C, which was on the bill for the company’s debut at City Center—the movements are linked to the music, not to any character or plot. He was also inspired by the physical attributes of American dancers. Their long limbs could extend the line of an arabesque; their strong bodies could zip through fast, intricate choreography.

Robbins, who often struggled to make things just right, combined ballet with theatricality and a human element. Dancers in his ballets often walk flat-footed or run onstage. One of his best known works, Dances at a Gathering, allows dancers to politely interact with one another. “The idea that dancers, even when they are doing difficult steps, should look like real people was important to him,” says Deborah Jowitt, author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.

But such realism is difficult to create and recreate. When teaching Robbins’s work to a new company, Jean-Pierre Frohlich, a former dancer and a member of the Robbins Rights Trust that licenses and promotes Robbins works, instructs dancers to think deeply about their characters, just as Robbins did. “His ballets are very fragile. You need to rehearse more because there is a mood you create,” Frohlich says. Even in their original form, Robbins ballets took time to come together. In the American Masters documentary, Martins recalls the creative process for In the Night. “I have never spent so many hours rehearsing such a short little pas de deux. It drove me crazy,” he says. “Balanchine would make a ballet in two rehearsals.”

The prolonged rehearsals, however, created important connections. In 1995, Robbins transposed West Side Story into a suite of dances for the ballet stage, and when performed, the dancers have to loosen up considerably. “It’s really important for ballet dancers to look like street kids,” Frohlich says. “A lot of dancers these days don’t know anything about the 1950s, and it was a time when young people wanted to say something.”

Having dancers who can create compelling characters and absorb information—who can switch from ballet dancer to street tough and beyond—is part of the Robbins legacy. And, in some ways, that defines our national approach. “American dancers have to be versatile,” says McKenzie.

To that end, American Ballet Theatre launched in 2007 a National Training Curriculum for dance teachers around the country. The program is designed to give teachers a standardized way of teaching the various techniques of ballet, from Cecchetti to Vaganova to Balanchine. “It’s about acknowledging . . . that you can’t be a specialist. They should come out as an unaffected dancer who can change styles the way we change clothes,” says McKenzie.

It may take a generation to see those results, but in the meantime, one of the most exciting signs of the future of American dance is intimately connected to Robbins and his desire to express the way we are now. In 2005, City Ballet revived Robbins’s 1958 NY Export: Opus Jazz, which is a celebration of popular dance influenced by Latin-American and African-American music. The dancers look like teenagers wearing sneakers, black tights, and candy-colored sweatshirts. Now, a group of dancers from New York City Ballet is creating a film of the work shot in contemporary clothes and in settings around New York. Though it is a work in progress, one portion of the film—a pas de deux shot on New York’s old elevated railway, the High Line—was shown at City Ballet in November 2007 as a precursor to the company’s 2008 winter season celebration of Robbins’s work. The filmed ballet was intense, alive, and rapturously affecting.

When introducing the film, dancer Sean Suozzi, twenty-six, who conceived the film idea said: “The project speaks to us about what it means to be young in New York City today.”

About the Author

Pia Catton, formerly the dance critic and cultural editor of the New York Sun, is a writer in New York.

Funding Information

The Educational Broadcasting System in New York received $600,000 to produce the documentary Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About, which airs on PBS on February 18.