Jerome Robbins Revisited in New Biography

In her recently published book, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, Deborah Jowitt, leading dance reviewer for The Village Voice, not only covers all these aspects with amazing perspicacity, she also manages to delve into the lives of relatives, friends, performers, and practically everyone who had even the slightest impact on the legendary dancer-director-choreographer.

Born in 1918 to Harry and Lena Rabinowitz, young Jerry was, thanks to his ambitious parents, pretty near into all the arts from his tenderest age. Sister Sonia was the dancer in the family. She thought her brother displayed talent as a dancer and fought with her father to convince him to allow Jerry the opportunity to try.

In the early '30s, Robbins' greatest influence was modern-dance choreographer Gluck Sandor, who founded the Dance Center together with his wife, Felicia Sorel. Sandor not only taught him, but also employed him as a dancer in his productions. Robbins never forgot the influence of his old teacher: In 1964 he employed him as the Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof.

Around 1937, while he was still with the Center, the family name was changed to Robbins. After the Anschluss in 1938 and the stories of atrocities committed by the Nazis, like many children of immigrant parents, Robbins' fear accelerated to the extent that he hated being Jewish. Still, his dire feelings must have eventually eased off, for he revealed in the landmark Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof his considerable knowledge of Jewish heritage, religious observations, and the shtetl life of his forebears.

In all probability, Robbins absorbed more eclectic training in dance than anyone else within memory. Sandor advised him to study ballet, and so Robbins studied it with Ella Daganova. He cleaned blinds for her as compensation for his lessons. There were numerous work scholarships available. Ironically, the School of American Ballet was the only one that turned him down. And to think that Robbins was to become associate artistic director of New York City Ballet in 1949, serving in that capacity in between staging Broadway musicals and a stint as choreographer-performer with Ballet Theatre (later on American Ballet Theatre).

Other teachers he studied with included Antony Tudor, Eugene Loring, Helen Platova, New Dance League (modern), Helene Veola (Spanish), and Nimura (Oriental). He also studied piano, violin, and acting.

As his days at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos indicated, his tremendous drive was obvious. The camp also proved a stomping ground for many other eventual celebrities, including Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, and Jules Munshin. Many an unemployed dancer later to reach prominence found a haven at the camp between engagements.

Robbins made his Broadway debut in 1938 as a chorus boy in Great Lady, which closed quickly despite boasting Frederick Loewe's first full-length Broadway score. He next performed in the 1939 production Stars in Your Eyes, which starred Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman. Jowitt points out: "Twenty years later one of the chorus boys would direct her in her greatest triumph, Gypsy." In addition to Robbins, Alicia and Fernando Alonso, Nora Kaye, and Maria Karnilova, later to join Ballet Theatre with Robbins, were also chorus members of Eyes.

When he joined the nascent Ballet Theatre in 1940, it wasn't long before he was discovered to be an excellent character dancer, and it didn't take long to sense his advancement within the company.

During the 1941 season at the Majestic Theatre, Agnes de Mille cast him as a sort of adjutant to the Devil in her satiric "Three Virgins and a Devil." He won praise, with the esteemed critic of The New York Times, John Martin, stating, "Robbins could scarcely have been better."

With the advent of World War II, some of the men were drafted. Robbins was called before the draft board. When he answered affirmatively to the question "Are you a homosexual?," he was classified 4F. Although he also had affairs with women over the course of his life, he preferred men.

Robbins continued to impress in ballets by Tudor and Fokine. He realized his dream of playing the title role in Fokine's Petrouchka during the company's appearance in Mexico in 1942.

Even while performing successfully in character roles, including Mercury in "Helen of Troy," where he engaged in scene-stealing antics, he was bursting with choreographic ideas of his own and kept bombarding Lucia Chase for opportunities to create ballets for the company. She finally agreed to his plans.

Robbins got Leonard Bernstein to supply the scintillating score for "Fancy Free." The story of three sailors on shore leave seeking girls was given its history-making premiere on April 18, 1944, with Harold Lang, John Kriza, and Robbins himself as the three hell-bent sailors and Muriel Bentley and Janet Reed as the two girls over whom they end up in a brawl. The work received a record-breaking 20 curtain calls, and has retained its popularity to this day.

Oliver Smith conceived the idea of adapting the ballet into a Broadway musical, and after many a grueling session with composer Leonard Bernstein, book writers-lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and director George Abbott, On the Town, a bountiful production, surfaced. The musical played 463 performances on Broadway, had a national tour, and was sold to MGM as a film.

A notable innovation was the integration of black and white dancers: Four black singers and four black dancers were hired and mixed in with the rest of the cast. The author advises, "On the Town was the first integrated show on Broadway without stereotypes and without separation of black and white dancers."

Robbins' second ballet for Ballet Theatre, "Interplay," with a score by Morton Gould, was a delectable jazz and ballet combination that could have been construed as the games dancers play when resting from the classics, and it served as a break from their other chores.

At the same time, he was working on Broadway on Billion Dollar Baby, a takeoff on the '20s, followed by Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'! and High Button Shoes.

Much has been made of Robbins' cruelty to his performers during his creative process. Descriptions of his persona by the dancers who were objects of his wrath are hair-raising. But as one recipient of furor during rehearsals was heard to remark, "You think Robbins is bad? Try Antony Tudor or Jack Cole." And I might add that Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp weren't exactly lollipops. In the end, Robbins seemed harder on himself than anyone else, for he was considered a perfectionist.

With his tremendous drive, Broadway shows were not sufficient. He joined New York City Ballet in the capacity of choreographer-dancer in 1948 and was listed as associate artistic director in 1949. His greatest triumph as a dancer with NYCB was his appearance in the title roles of "Prodigal Son" and "Til Eulenspiegel."

He was literally riding the crest of the wave, experiencing major triumphs on Broadway and with the staging of his new ballets for NYCB—among these, "The Cage," "Pied Piper," "Fanfare," and "Afternoon of a Faun"—when the House Committee on Un-American Activities struck.

Robbins admitted that he had joined the Communist Political Associates in 1943, but left the organization in 1947. What he was never able to live down was naming the names of those who had attended meetings while he was a member. Many reasons have been given, among them that he was threatened with exposure as a homosexual: In the 1950s, when the witch-hunts were virulent, it would have meant the end of everything he had built up.

Robbins' drive never abated. He went on to stage musicals and ballets. West Side Story—music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim—which Robbins staged and choreographed, proved a milestone. An updated Romeo and Juliet theme, the tragic musical turned out to be one of the most memorable ever conceived for the Broadway theatre.

About this time, he also managed to create "The Concert," a ballet that is considered the most hilarious to this day, what with its depiction of the pests and eccentrics who infest the concert world. He also created his own company, Ballets U.S.A. The company, under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department, performed successfully in several European countries. He also tried his hand at staging straight plays and was called in to doctor musicals created by others.

In 1969, New York City Ballet remained Robbins' main project. Among his most successful works were "Dances at a Gathering" and "In the Night," both performed to Chopin scores. These were followed by "Goldberg Variations," which was generally well received, and "Watermill," which was more experimental in nature and netted mixed reviews.

In 1972, during the Stravinsky Festival, he collaborated with Balanchine on "Pulcinella," and even performed a little dance with him.

When Balanchine died in 1983, there was a great deal of contention as to who would direct the company. After many a wrangle, it was decided that Peter Martins and Robbins would run NYCB together.

Robbins died of a stroke in 1998 at age 80. His accomplishments were phenomenal. It would take a review of encyclopedic length to list everything created during his lifetime, for he possessed the greatest scope of any American choreographer covering both ballet and musical theatre.

Deborah Jowitt's biography covers his life and work in such amazing detail that we can't help wondering whether there will be anything left for other aspiring biographers to write about. We highly recommend it for all dance, theatre, and music collections.

Published by Simon & Schuster, 617 pages, hardcover, 16 pages of black and white photographs, $40.