Jerome Robbins is world renowned for his work as a choreographer of ballets as well as his work as a director and choreographer in theater, movies and television. His Broadway shows include On the Town, Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, and Fiddler on the Roof. His last Broadway production in 1989, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, won six Tony Awards including best musical and best director.
Among the more than 60 ballets he created are Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, The Concert, Dances At a Gathering, In the Night, In G Major, Other Dances, Glass Pieces and Ives, Songs, which are in the repertories of New York City Ballet and other major dance companies throughout the world. His last ballets include A Suite of Dances created for Mikhail Baryshnikov (1994), 2 & 3 Part Inventions (1994), West Side Story Suite (1995) and Brandenburg (1996).
In addition to two Academy Awards for the film West Side Story, Mr. Robbins has received four Tony Awards, five Donaldson Awards, two Emmy Awards, the Screen Directors' Guild Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Mr. Robbins was a 1981 Kennedy Center Honors Recipient and was awarded the French Chevalier dans l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur. Mr. Robbins died in 1998.
A Biography in Brief by Amanda Vaill
JEROME ROBBINS (born 11 October 1918 in New York City) was the younger of two children of Harry Rabinowitz, who emigrated to America from Poland in 1904, and his wife Lena Rips. Rabinowitz was at first a shopkeeper with a delicatessen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; in the 1920’s he moved the family to Jersey City and then to Weehawken, New Jersey, where he and a brother-in-law established the Comfort Corset Company. Young Jerome, who showed an early aptitude for music, dancing, and theatrics, attended schools in Weehawken and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1935. Intending to study either chemistry or journalism, he matriculated at New York University in the autumn of 1935; but the Depression took a turn for the worse in 1936 and his family could no longer support his education -- especially considering that he was, by his own account, failing two courses (math and French) out of five. Unwilling to work in the corset factory, he tried to find employment in some form of show business; and through his sister Sonia, who had already danced professionally with Irma Duncan and Senya Gluck-Sandor’s Dance Center, he got an apprenticeship with Sandor’s company.
Gluck-Sandor was a hybrid as a choreographer -- ballet-trained, dedicated to modern dance, but also a veteran of Broadway, burlesque, and vaudeville -- and his expressive, theatrical style attracted Robbins from the outset. But the fledgling dancer -- who like other members of his family took the surname of Robbins for work in the theater -- also studied ballet with Ella Daganova and in 1937 appeared in the Yiddish Art Theatre production of The Brothers Ashkenazi, directed by and starring Maurice Schwartz, for which Sandor did the choreography. In the summer of 1937 Robbins began dancing and choreographing at Tamiment, a progressive-movement resort in Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains which featured a resident singing-acting-dancing troupe and weekend revues starring emerging talents like Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, and Carol Channing. His work from this period consisted mainly of burlesque-like blackout sketches on the one hand and dramatic works with strong social content, like Death of a Loyalist or Strange Fruit, (set to Abel Meeropol’s song about a lynching) on the other. But he was beginning to gain an audience: some of his dances were performed under the auspices of the Theatre Arts Committee at New York’s 92nd Street YMHA and others as part of The Straw Hat Revue, which Tamiment producer Max Liebman opened on Broadway in 1939.
Robbins spent three summers at Tamiment and taking on one-shot roles in ballet performances at Jones Beach, the New York World’s Fair, and elsewhere; he found work during the regular theater season in the Broadway choruses of Great Lady (1938), Stars in Your Eyes (1939), and Keep Off the Grass (1940) -- the last-named choreographed by George Balanchine. In the summer of 1940 he was accepted into the recently-formed Ballet Theatre, where he soon advanced from the corps de ballet to solo roles which showed off the taut fluidity with which he compensated for his lack of heroic classical technique: the Young Man in Agnes De Mille’s Three Virgins and a Devil, an apple-munching Hermes in Helen of Troy, and -- the role which made him famous -- the tragic puppet in Petroushka.
He had been burning to choreograph a ballet himself for the company, preferably one with an American theme, to American music; but all his ideas were too grandiose for the perennially strapped company to consider. Encouraged to "think small" he came up with the idea for a ballet about three sailors on shore leave in New York City. To write the score he sought out the services of a young unknown composer named Leonard Bernstein, and Ballet Theatre’s Oliver Smith agreed to design the scenery. On April 18, 1944, Fancy Free premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House to a raucous two dozen curtain calls; and in December of that year On the Town, a musical comedy based on the ballet, with music by Bernstein, dances by Robbins, sets by Smith (who also produced), and book and lyrics by a pair of Bernstein’s cabaret buddies named Betty Comden and Adolph Green, had a fairy-tale opening on Broadway. From that moment until his death more than fifty years later Robbins’s primacy on Broadway and in ballet was assured; but he did more than reach the top in his two spheres of influence. He changed each of his worlds from the inside out.
On Broadway he quickly established himself as the choreographer of the moment at a time when musical comedies were evolving out of the stylish but contentless song-and-dance anthologies that had showcased the talents of the Gershwins and Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. Robbins shows -- and as he began to direct as well as create ideas and dances for them, they truly were Robbins shows -- had, or aimed to have, a story, characters, a point.
So the Roaring Twenties musical, Billion Dollar Baby (1946 -- with book and lyrics by Comden and Green and music by Morton Gould), revolved around a gold-digging bathing beauty who serially married for money; 1947’s High Button Shoes (his first collaboration with composer Jule Styne) was a nostalgic romp set in New Jersey in 1913 and featuring a Keystone Kops ballet. And 1948’s Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’ (which he co-directed with George Abbot, and for which he received the credit "conceived by Jerome Robbins") was the autobiographical backstage story of a super-ambitious dancer-choreographer’s collision with the brewery heiress backing his ballet company; his changed character is mirrored in the two ballets he creates -- the first a brash, over-complicated expression of youthful hubris, the second altogether subtler, more thoughtful and human.
Look, Ma was succeeded by one of Robbins’s rare flops, a show called That’s the Ticket (1948), which Robbins directed but did not choreograph. An overly whimsical mishmash, it closed in Philadelphia after ten days. But at this point Robbins made a life altering career-change.
At Ballet Theater he had followed Fancy Free with a series of dances that integrated the classic vocabulary with modern subject matter: among them the be-bop ballet Interplay (1945) and Facsimile (1946), an angst-ridden exploration of a love triangle with a new score by Bernstein. But in 1949 he left Ballet Theater to join George Balanchine’s new-born New York City Ballet, where he was almost immediately named Associate Artistic Director. He danced numerous quasi-dramatic roles for Balanchine -- including Prodigal Son, Tyl Eulenspiegel and as a principal opposite the glamorous Tanaquil Le Clercq in Bourrée Fantasque -- before retiring from performance in the mid 1950’s; but it was as a choreographer that he made his mark. Ballets like The Guests (1949, score by Marc Blitzstein), Age of Anxiety (1950, to Bernstein), and the terrifying fable The Cage (1951, to Stravinsky), showcased his flair for drama, his all-American sass and energy, and his affinity for modern music. And his association with Balanchine gave him a security and sense of kinship that nourished his genius.
Robbins continued to work on Broadway, as the choreographer of two Irving Berlin shows, Miss Liberty (1949) and Call Me Madam (1950), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1951), and Two’s Company (1952), a revue starring Bette Davis. But in 1953 he stunned the theatrical community, if not the world at large, by appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he admitted to membership in the Communist Party during the 1930’s and named eight individuals who he said had also been members.
His testimony was denounced by many (including some of his family) for whom McCarthyism was only steps from Nazism, but Robbins refused to justify or explain himself beyond his public statement that he had "made a great mistake... in entering the Communist Party." His decision haunted him, however, and ultimately he placed it at the center of an autobiographical drama, The Poppa Piece, which he experimented with in workshops during the early 1990’s.
Ironically, his career seemed to take on added luster in this troubled time. He staged the all-American Ford 50th Anniversary Show (1953) for television with Ethel Merman and Mary Martin; co-directed The Pajama Game (1954) on Broadway; conceived, directed, and choreographed Peter Pan (1954) starring Mary Martin; directed Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land (1954); directed and co-choreographed Bells Are Ringing (1956) starring Judy Holliday; and choreographed the film version of The King and I (1956). Meanwhile at New York City Ballet he created two masterpieces, the lyrical Afternoon of a Faun (1953) and the hilarious send-up, The Concert (1956), among other works.
In 1957 he teamed up once again with Leonard Bernstein on a musical he had been discussing with him and playwright Arthur Laurents for some years: West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set against a background of gang warfare in New York’s Puerto Rican ghetto. Directed by Robbins, with his electrifying street-smart choreography integrated into the action, West Side Story was arguably the first "concept musical"; it broke the mold of the Broadway show and also established Robbins’s reputation as a perfectionistic, difficult taskmaster -- a reputation that was one factor in his dismissal as director of the 1961 film version. He won an Academy Award for his direction nonetheless -- sharing the Oscar with co-director Robert Wise -- as well as one for choreography.
After West Side Story Robbins left New York City Ballet for a time and formed his own company, Ballets: USA, to appear at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. For it he made the explosive New York Export: Opus Jazz (1958), a ballet without music called Moves (1959), and other works; the company toured extensively in Europe but -- despite enthusiastic notices and even an appearance at the Kennedy White House -- it failed to find an ongoing audience in the United States and was disbanded in 1961. In the meantime Robbins had also directed the ultimate backstage musical, Gypsy (1959) with Ethel Merman, and now he began to branch out into non-musical theater. In 1962 he directed the American premiere of Arthur Kopit’s mordant mother-son comedy, Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You In the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad and in 1963 a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children starring Anne Bancroft.
Two Broadway hits followed -- both shows he had originally agreed to direct, then withdrew from, and finally returned to when each seemed in danger of shipwreck during out-of-town tryouts. But although reviews for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) didn’t mention his name, and although for Funny Girl (1964) he was listed only as "production supervisor," he reshaped both those musicals radically. He got full credit and then some, however, for Fiddler on the Roof (1964), the musical setting of Sholem Aleichem stories which he choreographed and directed, bringing to life as an organic musical whole the lost world of the Russian shtetl.
He accomplished a similar feat with his mammoth staging of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (1965) for American Ballet Theatre, but then retreated from the pressures of huge collaborative productions. Broadway was moving in the direction of rock spectacles like Hair and Jesus Christ, Superstar, and Robbins didn’t want to move with it. With the help of a 1966 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he established the American Theatre Lab to explore experimental music-theater techniques, from dance to Noh drama, with a small handpicked company in a workshop setting for a period of two years.
Seemingly re-charged from this work, he re-emerged at City Ballet with Dances at a Gathering (1969), a poignant and playful celebration of youth and love which was widely hailed as a masterpiece. There followed a fertile creative period in which Robbins made such vastly different works as the moonlit, expressive In the Night (1970), The Goldberg Variations (1971), which explored Bach’s thematic geometry, and Watermill (1972), a Noh-like meditation on the passage of a man’s life. In addition he collaborated with Balanchine, with whom he now shared the title of Ballet Master, on dances for Firebird (1970) and Pulcinella (1972) -- a demonstration of the collegiality and mutual respect that had always marked their relationship. As Balanchine once said to him, speaking of the legendary Russian ballet master Marius Petipa: "Very few people can do. Petipa, you, me -- we can do."
Robbins never really left City Ballet again, except for a leave of absence in 1989 and forays into the theater for workshops of an adaptation of Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule (1987) and of The Poppa Piece (1991), and the triumphant staging of his anthology show, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), for which he won his fifth Tony Award. Increasingly his work seemed to move in a more and more abstract direction, away from the character-driven dances of his youth -- a process reflected in the changes he made in his last collaboration with Bernstein. Premiered as Dybbuk (1974) and based on the S. Anski play, it was first revised as The Dybbuk Variations (1974) and then as A Suite of Dances (1980), a ballet-in-progress which Robbins kept trying to reduce to its essence.
Essence did not mean homogeneity, however: Robbins’s work was still as protean as ever, from the sensuous and jazzy lyricism of In G Major (1975) and the opera-house pyrotechnics of Four Seasons (1979) to the spiky Opus 19: The Dreamer (1979) and the elegiac In Memory of... (1985). He was still experimenting with contemporary music, with ballets to Philip Glass (Glass Pieces, 1983) and Steve Reich (Octet, 1985), but it was Bach who spoke most clearly to him in his last decade, when he made the spare, poetic A Suite of Dances (1994) for Mikhail Baryshnikov to Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello; the deceptively simple Two- and Three-Part Inventions (1994) for the students of the School of American Ballet, and the exuberant Brandenburg (1997) for City Ballet.
By then he was in fragile health, following a bicycle accident in 1990 and heart-valve surgery in 1994; in 1996 he began showing signs of a form of Parkinson’s disease and his hearing was poor; yet he insisted on staging Les Noces for City Ballet (1998). It was the last thing he did; two months later he suffered a massive stroke, and he died at his home in New York on July 29, 1998.
Robbins had already been made Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and had won 5 Donaldson Awards, 5 Tony Awards, 2 Academy Awards, 1 Emmy Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and numerous other prizes; on the evening of his death, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for a moment in tribute. In the more than sixty years in which he had been active in the theater, he had transformed it because he never stopped asking questions. "Why can’t we do ballets about our own subjects, meaning our life here in America?" he asked before making Fancy Free. And, speaking of the collaboration that made West Side Story, "Why couldn’t we, in aspiration, try to bring our deepest talents together to the commercial theater?" His own work answered both questions in the affirmative.
c2001 by Amanda Vaill
This article first appeared in SCRIBNER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN LIVES.
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Jerome Robbins by Anka Muhlstein and Louis Begley
Genius, like religious faith, is very difficult to discuss or write about, because each is a gift that inherently transcends our understanding. So is choreography, an art we cannot experience fully except during the fleeting moment of performance, when its achievement, the amalgam of movement and music, decor, costumes and light, is before our eyes. Then the logic and beauty of a masterpiece overwhelm us. And we can recognize genius. A little bell rang in Gertrude Stein’s head to tell her Picasso was one when she met him. The rest of us distinguish genius from mere great talent according to another, less peremptory signal: the power of those who have it to revolutionize our perceptions, to fit us, as Proust would have it, with a new pair of glasses. We put them on and get used to the new prescription; they slide to the tip of our noses; presto the world changes. Sometimes, our acceptance of its new aspect turns out to be so complete that we wonder how we managed, until that magic moment, not to see how things really are.
Jerome Robbins has accomplished just such a miracle. In a series of masterpieces of choreography spanning five decades — from Fancy Free through Afternoon of a Faun, The Concert, Dances at a Gathering, and In the Night, Watermill, Glass Pieces, I’m Old Fashioned, and Ives, Songs to West Side Story Suite, all but the first composed for New York City Ballet — he has revealed a fresh and totally original understanding of the lineaments of American experience, as well as the exquisite possibilities of translating that unique subject into the idiom of classical ballet. In The Goldberg Variations and Brandenburg, he fashioned a modern lexicon for the art of classical ballet, an achievement akin to Picasso’s meditations on his great masters, Velásquez and Poussin and Ingres and Delacroix.
Not even artistic genius is independent of history and context; context creates or denies opportunities. Robbins was fortunate to work in the ballet within a context, New York City Ballet, the existence of which was the fabulous creation of two other geniuses: George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, that hothouse and nursery of the company.
Jerome Robbins has also revolutionized that magnificent American invention, the Broadway musical comedy. There had been dancing in musicals before Robbins. It took the form of set pieces executed by gifted hoofers. Never again, not when he conceived, directed, or choreographed a show. Starting his vast Broadway oeuvre with On the Town (based on his first ballet, Fancy Free, after the premiere of which he burst into fame), in play after play, including the fabulous King and I, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof, Robbins has integrated dancing into the theater, making it pulsate within shows like a big heart. And what dancing! An exuberant outpouring of fun, longing, and compassion that draws on scrupulous research and observation, a knowledge of movement that’s in Robbins’s bones and lets him meld boogie with the steps of classical ballet and Hasidic feasting, all of it propelled by an astonishing and eclectic gift for music.
To put American content in a radically new focus, to free it of "Ol’ Man River" and Oklahoma! sentimentality, to convey his vision when he wasn’t working for the stage in the idiom of the classical ballet, may have been in part Jerome Robbins’s conscious or instinctive reaction to the work of his mentor, partner, and friend, George Balanchine, and its Russian emphasis. It could not have been accomplished without the qualities that mark Robbins’s genius: limitless empathy for the American scene, an irrepressible and unpredictable sense of humor, nurtured, one is tempted to say, in equal measure by Mark Twain, Damon Runyon, and Mack Sennett, the ability to see and retain everything around him, as though filmed by a battery of cameras pointing in every direction, and above all the humility and simplicity of attitude that is given only to very great men. When Jerome Robbins, apparently idle, stands at the top of the steps of the Metropolitan Museum and watches the crowd, it is a safe bet that he is in fact accumulating data for use in his work.
One may doubt that anyone who has looked closely at Fancy Free and On the Town will ever think of sailors on leave looking for girls except as an extension of Jerome Robbins’s three gobs dancing their hearts out against the backdrop of stools and tables of a bar, or forget how it captured the sadness and devil-may-care gallantry of this country at war. Afternoon of a Faun, which he fashioned into a delicate, tentative reaching out of one dancer to another as they work in the studio, broken when absorption with their own bodies prevails over interest in the other, has locked inside it the loneliness and grace of kids from the School of American Ballet one may watch at rehearsal, in the corridors on a break from class, at intermissions. In Robbins’s world everything is possible and yet uncertain and perhaps foredoomed. Kids aren’t the same everywhere; Robbins’s faun and Robbins’s nymph are kids trying to make it in New York.
Only Ed Koren has drawn a bead on the denizens of the Upper West Side as accurately as Jerome Robbins in The Concert. The mismatched couple, the intellectual lady who won’t brook the least distraction, the fall guy straight out of a cafeteria on Broadway — our fellow citizens are caught like butterflies in Robbins’s net. In Dances at a Gathering and In the Night, which form a Chopin continuum, Robbins does far more than examine the technical possibilities of partnering and patterns of group movement. The subject is social interchange, diffuse and often distant in the earlier ballet, more intense and personal in the second, which followed one year later, marked by loneliness, diffidence, and passion that doesn’t dare to trust in itself, "whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu..." Set to music by a Japanese composer, grave, inspired by No plays, Watermill is nevertheless quintessentially American. This prodigious recollection of time past by a hierophantic figure almost immobile under an August sky, on a beach fringed with tall reeds and caught between the ocean and Mecox Bay, is defined by the tension Robbins has created. On one side, Utopian serenity and sensuality; on the other a catalog of barely contained violence; a species of violence that, in spite of the exoticism of the assailant’s appearance, is bitterly American, like our serial killers. In I’m Old Fashioned, Robbins accomplished an impossible and glorious marriage; the best of American movie dance, Fred Astaire’s sinuous and rhythmically bewitching romp with Rita Hayworth to the music of Jerome Kern, matched with the best of American ballet, New York City Ballet’s take on the Astaire-Hayworth theme danced to a variation on Kern by Morton Gould. Glass Pieces is a paean to the American city of walkers — whose apotheosis is New York — and the perpetual movement of its nomads, rushing optimistically and purposefully to a destination that may never be reached. By contrast, Ives, Songs is a celebration of an America that is no more: pleasures and disappointments of small-town family life, children pretending to be soldiers and real soldier boys marching off to the Great War that was to make the world safe for democracy, young love, recollections of innocence and guilt. Robbins’s most recent addition to the genre shines among his works in the native grain. It is West Side Story Suite, a rethought version of the dances he had created for the musical, with the Sharks and the Jets as fresh, beautifully observed, and convincing as they were forty years ago.
Every supreme artist must master the form he works in and then struggle to bend or break it. That is what Jerome Robbins’s The Goldberg Variations and Brandenburg are most spectacularly about, although of necessity the same effort goes on in each of his works. Goldberg decomposes every step and device of the classical ballet repertory and then so recombines their elements that the structure of dance is presented and explicated. The experience of the whole of that ballet is rather like watching very attentively Merrill Ashley dance a sustained solo movement. One realizes that she executes it, even when the textual content is most passionate, with a certain detachment, so that its structural necessity is revealed. A similar decomposition and fusion occur in Brandenburg, which was created more than twenty-five years after Goldberg but has the exuberance of a masterpiece by a young man. Robbins’s contribution to classical ballet as an art form is immense. Because he infused it so thoroughly with the American vernacular of jazz, boogie, and ballroom dancing, it may be that he is even more responsible than George Balanchine for the way New York City Ballet looks today, for the ways in which it differs from the ballets of Petipa or Bournonville.
No, we had no doubt that Jerome Robbins was a genius before he became our friend Jerry. But although we were used to seeing him here and there in New York, we didn’t actually meet him until 1982. On the West Side, on the stage of the New York State Theater, he was an elegant silhouette in black taking a bow; on the East Side, he was amazingly determined and straight-backed figure on a bicycle, pedaling calmly toward the Seventy-ninth Street entrance of the park. We realized that he was our neighbor because we would run into him so often late at night, when we were coming home and he was out walking his dogs, Nick, large and dark, leading the way, followed by wiggly little Annie, whose dark-rimmed eyes made one think she might have been, in a previous incarnation, a silent movie star. We never spoke to him until one summer evening he entered our lives as a guest, brought to our house by the late duo pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. It so happens that in our part of Long Island — at the beach, as Jerry Robbins puts it — we are also his neighbors. As a matter of principle and practice, Arthur and Bobby couldn’t tolerate the anomaly of any of their friends not all knowing each of the others. They had been Jerry’s friends forever; we were relatively recent acquisitions. Yet, there it was: we had never been introduced. The solution Arthur and Bobby found was to invite him to a birthday dinner one of us was giving for the other at our house in Long Island. It was their present, they declared, and it turned out to be the best one we ever received.
That evening Jerry was, at first, a silent presence. Small talk is completely foreign to him, and we were not going to chatter about ballet in the presence of the greatest living choreographer. Therefore, the conversation followed the course that was preordained when the Gold-Fizdale team was around: we started out discussing food, and then briskly moved on to books. All at once, Jerry jumped in. He was reading Proust, for the first time, and had just finished Swann’s Way. He wondered whether Proust had a passion for the ballet. We were surprised by the question. There is a glorious, nostalgic scene in Remembrance of Things Past that takes place at a performance by the Ballets Russes, but we thought it was the only important mention of ballet in Proust’s work. A free-for-all argument began, with the senior Proustians at the table, Arthur and Bobby and us, all concluding that no, Proust had not been particularly interested in dance. Very quickly, Jerry persisted. It can’t be a coincidence, he explained, that Proust chose the unusual name Swann for a central personage and made him fall in love tragically with Odette, whose character shifts so quickly from white to black: obviously, he had Swan Lake in mind. From then on, Proust was present at every meal we shared. Jerry is the most personal reader we have known, in the sense that he never remains on the outside of the story a novel tells. In the case of Proust, Jerry’s relation to Swann’s jealousy, to the Narrator’s possessiveness, and to the havoc it wreaks, became so intense he couldn’t bear to go on reading. He did return to Proust eventually, and as soon as he had finished Remembrance of Things Past, began rereading it. When we saw In Memory Of..., we wondered how much the story of Albertine had contributed to that ballet’s exploration of lovers’ drifting apart, death, and despair.
We were struck by the way Jerry reads; and we are continually struck with equal force by his searching, almost restless curiosity about things and people. It isn’t just a dancer’s love of motion or an ingrained impatience. Jerry takes nothing at face value; he is always questioning. It is a fact that he doesn’t like to sit too long at table, especially in the noise of a gala dinner. We remember how one evening, at the State Theater, he leapt to the edge of the floor as soon as the band began to play and studied his dancers, those elegant, hair-in-chignon, toes-on-point ballerinas, transformed for that evening into boys and girls out for a night on the town, kicking up a storm, dancing their own way. He was, of course, amused. But his interest in one girl was truly intense. Jerry had known her and used her in his ballets for years, but just then he was seeing her indelibly in a new way. He came back to the table very excited: I didn’t know she had that in her, he informed us, it was as if she had pushed another button. That button could open for her the door to the great Chita Rivera role in West Side Story Suite.
One winter, we met Jerry in Paris. He was staging three ballets at the Opéra. New dancers, new stage. A lot of work. He invited us to a rehearsal. We were to meet him at the cantine. He showed up looking relaxed, fit and tanned as usual, a dark navy blue cap on his head. This was no American in Paris. Our friend Jerry, who had never uttered a word of French in our presence, was speaking it with authority, and with a perfect accent. He ordered a boudin avec pommes purées and proceeded to explain the difference between Paris Opéra’s dancers and his own New York City Ballet "jewels." The Americans, he told us, dance in relation to one another, the French always want to let in the public. And that was contrary to the spirit of In the Night, the ballet he was working on with them. As we waited for the elevator that would take us to the rehearsal room tucked away in the Opéra’s top rotunda, Jerry’s dancers appeared as if from nowhere and surrounded him. The étoiles kissed him on the cheek, the younger girls and boys hovered at the edge, hoping to touch the Master’s parka. There was a sense of shared joy and anticipation. It was then that Isabelle Guérin unexpectedly told us, point-blank, "I hate rehearsing, except with Jerry." We asked her why. "Because he is so serious," she replied.
We settled down on a bench and watched. In their workout clothes, traditionally motley and casual, as though the dancers were in search of an antidote for the artifice of tulle, satin, and velvet, interrupted every few minutes by Jerry’s assistant, Jean-Pierre Frohlich, or Jerry himself, they went about the work of dissecting a pas de deux, putting together the mysterious bits and pieces that go into making a ballet that on stage, when the lights go on, will seem so inevitable and limpid.
Laboriously counted and repeated, time and time again, under Jerry’s implacably attentive gaze, the steps slowly blended. Patient, encouraging, tireless, he led his dancers to the result he wanted to attain. He used few words. The work was in the showing. Patiently, he translated his own gestures into the fluid movements the girls then took up. His hands and feet compelled imitation. Never allowing himself to appear frustrated, he dealt with his dancers very gently. Time passed. They went on repeating what he had taught them until, at last, they met his expectations. He lost his temper only once: at the pianist, who was going through the Chopin pieces as though he were alone in an empty room. Stop, cried Jerry, stop, you must look, you must always look at the dancers.
c1998 by Anka Muhlstein and Louis Begley
This piece first appeared in TRIBUTES: CELEBRATING FIFTY YEARS OF NEW YORK CITY BALLET published by William Morrow and Company, Inc.
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