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The Music that Made Him Dance

Charles Wright pores through Deborah Jowitt's vivid new biography of the legendary choreographer-director Jerome Robbins. logo
Jerome Robbins' reputation would be titanic even if his sole credit were West Side Story, but that 1957 groundbreaker ("based on a conception of Jerome Robbins") is a mere fraction of the Robbins saga. Add such landmark Broadway productions as Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, On the Town, and Mary Martin's version of Peter Pan, plus a host of play-doctoring assignments (including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), and it's easy to see why Stephen Sondheim calls Robbins "the best stager of musical numbers -- I think in my lifetime, anyway -- in the Broadway theater."

Over the five decades of his working life, Robbins made himself as integral to "classical" dance in the United States as to the theater. In the words of Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt, Robbins was the "greatest American-born choreographer working in ballet." Consequently, when Robbins died six years ago, he wasn't eulogized only at Broadway's Majestic Theatre but also in a separate memorial at New York City Ballet's Lincoln Center headquarters. Another memorial at the Paris Opera, where the resident ballet company frequently performs Robbins' choreography, attests to the international reach of his influence.

Public mourning for Robbins focused on his choreographic genius; private recollections adverted also to a churlish side of his personality. One much repeated tale, classifiable as an urban legend, involves the cast of some Robbins show or other -- the specifics vary according to the teller, but it's frequently said to be a revival or tour of West Side Story -- watching impassively, silently, with deep-seated satisfaction as the director-choreographer, utterly consumed in haranguing his performers, steps backwards, unknowingly, into the abyss of the orchestra pit.

Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz grew up in New Jersey and matriculated at New York University but dropped out of college to dance professionally. He also experimented with fiction writing, but his literary career never got off the ground. Robbins swiftly made a name for himself -- first as a Broadway hoofer, then as part of the emerging world of American ballet. An autodidact, he transformed himself into a choreographer, a stage director and, to some extent, a filmmaker. Having shed the Rabinowitz and restyled himself "Robbins," he later explored his Jewish origins as a frequent visitor in Israel, as a student of Judaica and, most significantly, as creator of such ethnically inflected works as Fiddler on the Roof, the balletic adaptation of Dybbuk, and a mixed media piece called The Poppa Piece that he chose not to unveil to the public. Known affectionately among dancers as "Big Daddy," Robbins was often belittling in rehearsal. He was an intellectual who fled formal education, a perfectionist whose flaws were impossible to overlook, a gay man with a roster of former lovers who were females.

Three years ago, Greg Lawrence published a hefty biography of Robbins titled, appropriately, Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins. As the husband of ballerina Gelsey Kirkland (a protégé of Robbins's mentor and colleague, George Balanchine), Lawrence was ideally placed to reach those in the dance world who could deliver the skinny on the controversial choreographer. Lawrence's book is a big, meaty work, impressively researched; comprehensive in its evocation of bohemian culture in New York and Hollywood from the Second World War to the end of the twentieth century; and chilling in its portrayal of a troubled, contradictory spirit. Eminent and colorful though Robbins surely was, one might expect the market to have been saturated by the Lawrence book, but it turns out that it was merely a stopgap.

Now comes another gigantic volume, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (Simon & Schuster, 622 pp., $40) by Deborah Jowitt. Though Lawrence, like Jowitt, benefited from interviews with Robbins's relatives and friends, Jowitt has had the advantage of access to the vast Robbins papers that recently came to rest in the performing arts division of the New York Public Library. This abundance of correspondence, journals, memos, artifacts, and autobiographical jottings, which Robbins preserved over the years, inevitably gives Jowitt a richer perspective than Lawrence. The result is a more nuanced and, ultimately, more sympathetic portrait than Dance with Demons. But it's not a whitewash; Jowitt addresses forthrightly Robbins' darker aspects, never pulling her punches about the ignoble side of his character.

In many ways, Robbins's story is emblematic of tensions in the world of the arts during and after World War II. Though hardly flamboyant, Robbins stirred up considerable controversy throughout his career -- disavowing his family's Jewish identity in favor of "assimilation," being secretive and, at times, dishonest about his homosexuality, and, most especially, supplying information to the FBI and the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) during the post-war Red Scare. In 1953, when HUAC's inquiry threatened to make public Robbins's left-wing past and his history of gay relationships, the choreographer "named names," betraying old friendships in order to avoid losing face in the then-intolerant world of movies and television. Arthur Laurents, Robbins's collaborator on West Side Story and Gypsy, dismissed the director-choreographer as self-centered, unscrupulous, and baldly careerist: "You're not evil because you informed; you informed because you're evil."

Deborah Jowitt
(Photo © Helge Reistad)
Where Lawrence was forced to surmise, Jowitt is privileged to peer beneath Robbins's impassive facade. "Reading the journals," she writes, "one is torn -- admiring him, aching for him, and wanting to mutter 'Snap out of it!'" In the journals, she says, Robbins "wrote little about his work and a great deal about what he saw, thought, felt, read, and dreamed. The pages vividly reveal his insecurity, his anger, his passions, and his sense of beauty." While preparing for the New York City Ballet's 1972 Stravinsky Festival, for instance, Robbins articulated "the fear that never left him: he's internationally famous, 'so how come I still think of myself as phoney & my talent is [sic] invisible ink?'"

Jowitt's gifts as a dance critic serve her well in Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. Her knack for recreating in words what she has seen on stage -- or, in the case of many Robbins ballets, what she has seen on film and video -- ensures that the book's sections about Robbins's choreography, his rehearsal technique, and his relationships with dancers are especially vibrant and dramatic. Jowitt barrels through Robbins's genealogy, upbringing and maturation, including those few months at NYU, in a scant 13 pages. Thereafter she concentrates on his dual career in theater and ballet, its historical context, and what it all reveals about the man. Jerome Robbins is Jowitt's debut as a biographer, yet she demonstrates an aplomb unrivalled by a legion of contemporary writers who devote themselves exclusively to the genre. Unlike the hoi polloi of biographers, Jowitt doesn't strain to be encyclopedic, trotting out every fact in captivity. Instead she marshals data with supreme selectivity to bring depth of hue and intricacy of insight to the portrait of her subject. She works in the tradition of Lytton Strachey rather than that of Leon Edel -- yet, because Robbins is a mammoth topic, she has still produced a book big enough to serve as a doorstop.

Jowitt's thoroughness is illustrated by the fact that she has nailed down the source of that urban legend about Robbins toppling backwards into the orchestra pit. At base, she writes, it's a true story that occurred during rehearsals for the 1945 musical Billion Dollar Baby. Jowitt analyses the incident with typical empathy. It's a cherished story, a legend, because "it presents the foul-tempered choreographer getting his comeuppance from dancers, who by tradition and out of necessity are docile." She observes that the "nonintervention of...cast members took passive resistance to new heights. And it must have given Robbins pause. He could be considerate, high-spirited, and fun to be with away from work -- going to the beach or Coney Island amusement park, for instance, with dancers he considered friends. His sense of humor could flash out at work, too. He was famous for his giggle. Several of the women he worked with fell in love with him (and undoubtedly some of the men did as well). However, he could turn into a Mr. Hyde during rehearsals -- especially rehearsals of [Broadway] shows, when the pressure was more intense."

Quoting veteran Broadway dancer James Mitchell, Jowitt sums up Robbins with pungency: "He was the most charming, lovable son of a bitch that I have ever known."

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