The Boston Phoenix
August 6 - 13, 1998

[Dance Reviews]

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Jerome Robbins

(1918 - 1998)

by Janine Parker

Jerome Robbins It's true, as a friend remarked last week, that because of his age (he was 79), Jerome Robbins's death is not a shocking news item. It is, however, a profound and melancholy event. Robbins was the last of the triptych -- with George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein -- who together reared one of the most important cultural institutions our country has ever seen, New York City Ballet. And on Broadway, Robbins's parallel universe, his signature on such shows as West Side Story, The King and I, and Fiddler on the Roof raised the standard of dancing in musical theater. He was, as New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote, "the first major American-born classical choreographer." Although NYCB continues on successfully enough (usually), it is unsettling to look about and see no new Balanchines or Kirsteins or Robb-inses. Robbins's death is a bona fide End Of An Era.

Although his renown has mostly grown out of his work as a choreographer, Robbins did start out as a dancer, and in fact he received decent notices for that aspect of his craft. Like so many male dancers, he came to the art form relatively late, and even then it was modern dance -- not ballet -- that he first studied. Robbins was born in 1918, and by the time he was dancing, in the 1930s, the modern-dance boom in Europe had come to America. At the prolific urging of one of his teachers, he studied the comparatively obscure (at least in this country) form of ballet anyway, as well as Spanish and "Oriental" dance. Finally, and perhaps most important, he also studied choreography under the great Bessie Schonberg. This -- along with the hodgepodge of dance styles and his burgeoning interest in experimental theater -- created the palette from which Robbins drew upon.

Choreographic success came early and probably hastened the end of Robbins's own performing career; he began dancing with Ballet Theatre (now called American Ballet Theatre) in 1940 and "retired" from dancing in 1952. During these dozen years, Robbins made such works as the beloved Fancy Free for Ballet Theatre and began his affiliation with Broadway, choreographing a number of musicals including On the Town and The King and I. In 1948, he joined NYCB at Balanchine's behest; a year later he became the company's associate artistic director. Suzanne Farrell, for years NYCB's leading diva and Balanchine's muse, wrote that Robbins was "the company's second most productive and respected choreographer."

Balanchine and Robbins coexisted so well probably because, for the most part, they worked separately. Both were refreshingly iconoclastic in their work, and though you could describe them both as "jazzy," "cool," and "witty," their styles and methods had little in common. Balanchine was known for the innateness with which he married his steps to the music, yet he would quickly discard or change choreography if it wasn't working for a particular dancer. Robbins, on the other hand, was infamous for creating several versions of a section and rehearsing several casts before deciding who would dance the role and which version. Sometimes this created an unpleasant, audition-like tension among accomplished professionals -- but Robbins simply wanted it his way.

Balanchine, an accomplished musician, found drama and choreography through the music; Robbins, a veteran of the theater, found musicality and choreography through the drama. That drama could be realistic, as with the frolicking sailors on leave in Fancy Free or the warring street gangs in West Side Story; it could be disturbing, as in the man-eating insect-like figures in The Cage; or it could be lyrically abstract, as in Afternoon of a Faun, or Dances at a Gathering.

In 1959, Robbins left NYCB, somewhat mirroring Balanchine's ballet The Prodigal Son, though he was never an ungrateful son -- he simply had other business to attend to. This other business was, of course, Broadway, where, in smash musical after smash musical Robbins explored other avenues of his vision. ("The man is like a Houdini of stagecraft," New Yorker critic Arlene Croce once wrote.) Yet despite his comfort with and success in musical theater, by all accounts classical ballet remained Robbins's true love, and in 1969 he returned to NYCB, at a time when Balanchine, tired and struggling with personal disappointments, was causing both insiders and outsiders to question his ability to produce. With the elegantly introspective Dances at a Gathering, Robbins helped breathe life back into NYCB. When in 1983 Balanchine died -- also at the age of 79 -- Robbins and Peter Martins shared directorship of the company.

The revered critic Edwin Denby wrote in 1945 that "Robbins alone of our native choreographers has grasped at one stroke that the basis of ballet logic is a view of time and space as a closed entity." With the passing of Jerome Robbins, there is indeed a palpable closing of a particularly brilliant time and space in classical dance.