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Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance

by Deborah Jowitt
Book review by Leland Windreich

September, 2004

In Greg Lawrence’s biography of Jerome Robbins there is a quote that has stuck in my memory. The dancer Mel Tomlinson sums up his association with the choreographer with the statement “Well, if I do go to hell, I won’t be afraid of the devil … because I have worked with Jerome Robbins.” Lawrence’s over 600 page study, appropriately titled “Dance with Demons; The Life of Jerome Robbins” (Putnam 2001), involves a sharp focus on his subject’s anxieties and the wretched, often erratic behavior that his condition inspired. This year Deborah Jowitt has produced another book, equal in size, in which the demons take second place to her revelation of the man’s vitality, his incessant occupation with his creative impulses, and his production of wonderful works for the theatre.

Jowitt is one of the most respected dance critics in the business and has been reviewing performances for The Village Voice for 37 years. She also teaches in the dance department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2002 she received a Guggenheim fellowship to write this work. This is her first biography, and she has approached it with a devout respect for her subject and a persistence that kept her immersed in the materials and the personal connections relative to Robbins’ life and work. In writing with the approval of the Jerome Robbins Foundation and the Robbins Rights Trust, she was allowed access to vast resources of documents, including the choreographer’s personal archives, his diaries and letters, and filmed records of his works for ballet and the stage. She made contact with members of the Robbins family and with hundreds of friends, colleagues, and associates who knew the choreographer over a lifetime of activity.

Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz was born in Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1918 to Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father ran a successful corset factory and hoped that his son might succeed him in the business. But Robbins and his older sister Sonia had other plans. She had started training in dance, and Jerome soon followed in her direction. They gravitated to the studio of the eclectic Gluck Sandor, who operated his Dance Theatre in a loft in uptown Manhattan. Robbins was 18 when he began his studies, which were later supplemented with training in popular dance, Spanish dancing, and classical ballet. Slight in build and too old to aspire for a career as a danseur noble, Robbins excelled in expressionistic dances, in comedy and in activities requiring inventiveness and imagination. Author Jowitt makes it clear that as a late teen-ager he had potential for pursuing any number of occupations in the arts. His expressive diaries and poems show an extraordinary gift for words. He was also a talented puppeteer.

Summer work in the camps of the borscht circuit brought him in contact with many of the young performers who would become celebrities in the New York theatre within the decade. He was hired in the corps de ballet for several Broadway musicals, including “Great Lady” and “Stars in your Eyes.” In these shows he had his first contact with George Balanchine, who made dances for the popular theatre to support his ambitions to form an American ballet company. But in 1939 another faction emerged from the parochial Mordkin Ballet called Ballet Theatre, an ambitious undertaking which aspired to become a living museum of dance. It was bankrolled largely by the heiress Lucia Chase and managed by Richard Pleasant. Many of the young ballet-trained dancers from the musicals became members of the troupe, including Nora Kaye, Alicia and Fernando Alonso, Maria Karnilova, Richard Reed and John Kriza. Robbins was accepted for the company’s second season, 1940-41, on the basis of his vitality and brilliant stage persona.

At Ballet Theatre, he settled in with the final variant of the WASP names that he had used in his earlier engagements, and Jerry Rabinowitz launched a career as Jerome Robbins, following a trend that prevailed among many of the offsprings of Jewish immigrants who chose a life in the theatre (his lifelong friend and sometime fiancée Nora Koreff became Nora Kaye). Ballet Theatre offered him a smorgasbord of roles, including the occasional turn as a classical cavalier but generally in dramatic or comic assignments. He worked under Mikhail Fokine, Leonide Massine, Anton Dolin, Antony Tudor, and Agnes de Mille. Within two years he was allowed to portray the role of Petrouchka in Fokine’s popular ballet and succeeded Leonide Massine as the Gypsy dancer in “Capriccio Espagnol.”

Determined to become a choreographer, Robbins submitted a number of ideas in manuscript form to his directors. By 1943 his first assignment was approved, and his instant hit, “Fancy Free,” thrust him into a prominent role in the American theatre that would occupy him for the next five decades and install him as a major creative force.

From “Fancy Free” for the ballet and its outgrowth for the Broadway stage, “On the Town,” Robbins alternated between the two media throughout his career, adding a third—motion pictures—as his fame flourished. Some critics, including Joan Acocella in The New Yorker, firmly believed that Robbins’ ballets were “never as good as his Broadway work, the thing he walked away from,” and that his presence in later years as ballet master at New York City Ballet was a matter of “banging on the gates of someone else’s property.” Jowitt obviously disagrees with this opinion. The bulk of her study involves intricate descriptions of both his ballet offerings and his Broadway and Hollywood projects and vivid commentaries on the circumstances of their creation. She shows as well the process of refinement that took place in his ballet choreography as he moved toward simpler and more academic modes. As a dance critic her descriptions of his ballets are perhaps more vivid, but she presents no editorial preference for one form over the other.

As for the demons that obsessed Jerome Robbins, Jowitt gives ample consideration to the issues that troubled him. His reluctance to be a Jew and his self-loathing for his homosexual inclinations come across as contradictions. He made no effort to pass for a Gentile and managed to produce a number of outstanding theatre pieces involving Jewish themes, notably the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and the ballet “The Dybbuk” for New York City Ballet. Nor did he make any effort to disguise his sexual nature. Actually a bisexual, he consorted with several young women over the years but seemed to prefer male lovers for his long-term involvements. He dodged the military draft during World War II by admitting that he was homosexual, and when the examining physician asked him when he had last had contact with another man, his answer was “Last night.” He did not, nor did his openly gay colleague, Antony Tudor, ever use the dance as a medium to convey the issue of homosexuality. Both instinctively preferred the yin and yang that traditional ballet seems to demand. Perhaps the most pressing matter on his conscience was his revelation to the House Un-American Activities Committee of names of cellmates in a brief involvement with the Communist Party. It brought a pall to the careers of several prominent people of the theatre who would never forgive Robbins for his actions.

Jowitt, always a friendly writer in her dance critiques, maintains a presence in each chapter, and her obvious affection for her subject and admiration of his extraordinary gifts prevails in the rich tapestry of experiences that unfolds. She provides in the process a splendidly documented account of a complex and varied career enjoyed by a leading light in the American theatre of the 20th century, one that will be cherished by scholars in the years to come.

Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, by Deborah Jowitt.
Simon & Schuster, 2004. 619 pp. ISBN: 0-684-86985-3. $40.00.

Edited by Jeff.

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