In the early 1940s, when young Jerome Robbins was a dancer in a newly founded company, Ballet Theatre, he already had ambitions to be a choreographer, and he finally presented a scenario that appealed to the management. He was 24 years old and composer Leonard Bernstein scarcely a year older when they began to collaborate on Fancy Free. Three sailors on shore leave in New York City (Robbins played one of them) was a timely topic in 1944, and audiences received the ballet enthusiastically.
It revealed ideas that were to shape Robbins’ work, both in ballet and on Broadway. He came down hard on artificiality and dancers who played to the audience. He wanted them to look “real” despite their virtuosity, to see and react to the others onstage. If a plot was involved, he might want a dancer to know what his/her character had eaten for dinner the night before. Such desires influenced his choreographic style and the movements he chose. The Jets and Sharks in West Side Story are not “chorus boys.” They’re edgy, they hunker down into dancing or launch themselves into the air without denying that effort. His second ballet, Interplay (1945), told no complicated story, but the frisky kids it depicted sometimes just sat down and rested or watched a romance develop in their territory.
In 1969, when he stopped choreographing and/or directing musicals and taking on other theater projects in order to commit himself to Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, he chose to begin his great Dances at a Gathering without a typical ensemble opener. Instead, Edward Villella stood alone onstage, his back to the audience, and began to dance almost tentatively to the Chopin piano piece being played. Robbins had told him to feel as if he were revisiting a place he had once known well and experiencing it both as it was now and as it had been.
New York City Ballet was not unfamiliar to him; he had performed in the company and made ballets for it during the late 1940s and early 1950s, juggling that job and stints choreographing musicals. Back then, he tended to think up ideas and then find music that would suit them. The Cage is set to Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra. Robbins made it in 1951 (the same year that The King and I, with his choreography, opened on Broadway). In the savage little ballet, Nora Kaye played the novice in an all-female insect community, who must prove that she can mate with a male and then kill him. Its references to Giselle are contemporary and unnerving; in it, pointe shoes are wielded like stingers. (Robbins, who had been on the brink of marrying Kaye, had evidently decided against it.)
Two years later, in creating Afternoon of a Faun, he set his imprint on Claude Débussy’s Prelude à l’après midi d’un faun, which accompanied Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 work for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. No nymphs for Robbins and no goat-legged faun, but a duet that happened, almost by accident, between two ballet dancers in practice clothes, who had found an empty studio in which to nap (he) and to practice (she). The audience becomes the mirror into which they gaze, appraising everything they do.
Over the first half of his career, Robbins attacked each new idea as something to be researched—reading, listening to music, viewing art works. In making Fancy Free, for example, he had absorbed Paul Cadmus’ raunchy paintings of sailors and their girlfriends—paintings with such names as Follow the Fleet and Shore Leave. When directing and choreographing Fiddler on the Roof (1964), having also offered his opinions on the scenario as it developed, he not only plumbed his own Russian heritage, he took various cast members to Jewish weddings.
However, when he returned to the New York City Ballet as a ballet master in 1969, he was hungry to make only ballets, and for almost all of those that he choreographed between Dances at a Gathering and his last ballet, Brandenburg (1997), music became his principal generating source, as it was Balanchine’s. He listened to recordings intently, over and over, and let them ignite images of a ballet’s atmosphere and those who peopled it.
He never lost the desire to show communities onstage. When dancers exit or enter Dances at a Gathering, you imagine them joining or leaving a nearby rendezvous. There’s no “story;” Robbins felt strongly about that. But watching the hour-long ballet, you sense daylight, the outdoors, and friends celebrating together to the array of Chopin mazurkas, etudes, and waltzes. On the other hand, the three successive duets of In the Night, which are set to Chopin nocturnes (or night music) are more elegant, more temperamental, less breeze-blown, even though each portrays a different kind of relationship.
Robbins wanted dancers to approach classical steps as if rising onto pointe was no more unusual than an intake of breath, and a turn could seem a giddy impulse (no showing a planted preparation to spin as if it were interesting in itself). Even in ballets with large casts and music by diverse composers, such as The Goldberg Variations (J.S. Bach), Glass Pieces (Philip Glass), and The Four Seasons (Giuseppe Verdi), he found ways to make formal patterning suggest a society following its rules. Wit could leaven a section, as when shivering women brace themselves against the blasts of male “winds” in the “Winter” section of The Four Seasons. The repetitive patterns of Glass’ music impelled images of city traffic and individuals preoccupied with their own paths. And Bach’s intricacies are countered by moods Robbins sensed in the music, while his imagery suggests members of a ballet company at work—colleagues watching one another, leading a group, fitting in.
Jerome Robbins was a perfectionist and a demanding taskmaster. Just as he wanted dancers onstage to be versions of themselves, he wanted everything he made to be distinctive. To be, unmistakably, itself.
Deborah Jowitt, a dance critic and historian, is the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.