Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance, by Wendy Lesser

December 18, 2018 at 2:10 pm (Ballet, Book review, books, Music)

  This brief biography was a pleasure to read. There is so much more to Jerome Robbins than West Side Story – although just that one stupendous achievement in and of itself would have sufficed.

West Side Story was the second Broadway show I ever saw. I had the privilege of attending a performance featuring the original cast. I remember sitting in the audience at the end, tears streaming. I was fourteen years old and had no idea how lucky I’d been to see what I had just seen. (My first Broadway show was Damn Yankees, also with the original cast.)

I was also familiar with Fancy Free, Robbins’s first staged work. It’s a ballet about three sailors on shore leave basically looking for some action. (Robbins danced  the role of one of them.) He had been watching young men like these as they breezed through Manhattan while on shore leave. It was 1944 and there was a war on, so they were looking to pack as much fun into their lives in a short time as they possibly could.

This is the only video of the complete ballet that I could locate on YouTube. The quality is not great, but it’s more than enough to show the sheer wonderfulness of Fancy Free:

This video with Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck, both principal dancers at the New York City Ballet, is shorter but worth watching, for the rehearsal footage and for Tyler Angle’s commentary:

The music for Fancy Free was written by Leonard Bernstein, at Jerome Robbins’s specific request. It was the beginning of a collaboration that culminated, years later, with West Side Story. The task was never easy – these were two enormously gifted men with egos to match. But the results – what a gift to the rest of us!

Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins was a choreographer, dancer, and script doctor. His work, in one or more of those capacities, can  be seen in some of the most popular shows ever seen on Broadway: The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, and West Side Story, to name a few. But being as I’ve become such a balletomane of late, it was the ballets which I found especially fascinating.

And it was his work in ballet choreography that brought him into the orbit of probably the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century: George Balanchine.

Along with Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine founded the the New York City Ballet in 1948. From that year, Balanchine was the artistic director/ballet master – the soul of the company, really – up until his death in 1983.

Jerome Robbins made a number of works for the New York City Ballet. Unavoidably, there was an element of rivalry in his relationship with Balanchine. But it was the public and the news media that reflected a certain attitude toward the place in the pantheon properly occupied by these two artists. Wendy Lesser puts it this way:

Precisely the things that made him [Robbins] unique as a choreographer- the modern, folk, and even street-style gestures that he added to his ballets; the function of plot and character in his works; the presence of humor and gentle self-mockery in his dances; even the fact that his women were not elongated, rarefied, unattainable muses, but strong, feisty dancers equivalent to the men- defined him as a second-rater.

It should be noted that Robbins’s admiration for Balanchine was boundless. He did not like to think of himself as a competitor. The two men managed to stay on cordial terms throughout their long association. Each had brilliant careers and were duly recognized for their achievements. And I personally do not think that at this time, Jerome Robbins is classified as a ‘second-rater’ by anyone knowledgeable in the history of twentieth century dance.

The life of Jerome Robbins had its turbulent aspects, especially as regards Robbins’s sexual ambivalence and his uneasy relationship with Judaism, the faith into which he was born. Wendy Lesser deals with these issues in a clear  and balanced way. She also alludes to Robbins’s strong feelings for Tanaquil Le Clercq, the brilliant and beautiful dancer who, in 1952, became George Balanchine’s fourth wife.

The tragedy of Tanaquil LeClercq is surely one of  the saddest stories in all the performing arts. ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…’

I did plenty of running to YouTube in the course of my reading of this book. Here are some of the better videos that I found:

 

 

Suite of Dances was originally written by Jerome Robbins for Mikhail Barychnikov.

 

 

Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance is part of a series put out by Yale University Press called Jewish Lives.

I highly recommend the film Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About. It’s part of the American Masters series made by PBS; the local library has the DVD.

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