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The Fusion of Dance Cultures: An examination of Jerome Robbins' choreography for 'The King and I'

by Stephanie Prugh

When approaching a new work, chorographers are generally drawn to what they know, however, widely respected choreographer Jerome Robbins was the exception. When he was asked to choreograph the ballet of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Robbins found himself between two cultures that had rarely crossed paths on the Broadway stage of the 1950’s; the Siamese court and the Western audience.
The 1952 Tony Award winner for Best New Musical, The King and I tells the story of Anna Leonowens and her time at the Siamese court as the governess to the children of King Mongkut. Conceptualized by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, this collision of East and West would be their only collaboration with Robbins. Robbins, a classically trained ballet dancer, was beginning to enjoy success as a Broadway choreographer thanks to On The Town, a musical based on his ballet Fancy Free, and High Button Shoes. Perhaps it is important to state that although Robbins training was rooted in ballet, and he would spend a considerable amount of time working with the American Ballet Theatre, it is nearly impossible to label his work. His choreography is so embedded in the world of his musicals that the dances become an integral part of the storyline, revealing character and often times progressing the plot forward. Some of his most famous work is easily identified, such as West Side Story, however his choreography for West Side Story differs dramatically from that in Fiddler on the Roof, which, in turn, is different from The King and I.

Robbins’ contribution to the musical is seen in the intricately woven ballet version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is presented to the King by his new wife Tuptim, whose desire to leave him is directly paralleled in the ballet with Eliza’s escape from the evil King Simon of Legree. With his vast training in classical ballet, Robbins had the arduous task of not only setting the “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, but of also integrating Asian dance into a musical intended for Western audiences.

For Robbins, The King and I presented an interesting challenge. He began research for this new project by viewing sculptures and reading books on Asian arts and theatre and although, he found very little about Siamese(1) dances, he was able to use information from neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Laos. Two books proved to be instrumental in his research were Raymond Cogniat’s Danses d’Indochine and George Bois’ Les Danseuses Cambodiginnes en France(2). Evidence of his research is seen in different aspects of the production such as costumes, which were inspired by photos of Khmer dancing girls and the use of symbolic props and stage assistants shrouded in black; a convention of Japanese Kabuki theatre(3). It was ultimately the Cambodian classical dance form that Robbins would integrate into his choreography. Staying true to two very important aspects of Cambodian classical dance: the highly stylized movements intended solely for the Siamese court and the all female dance ensemble(4).

Cambodian classical dance or female dance drama (lakon kabach boran) is said to be very close to the Thai dance, lakon fai nai. This may give some indication as to why Robbins chose to use the conventions of Cambodian classical dance over other forms. Besides its long and rich history of storytelling, it is important to note that its origins are sometimes a source of debate. It is acknowledged that the classical Cambodian dance that is performed currently is a variant on the ancient form and is believed to have been influenced by the 19th century Thai model(5). It is difficult to say if this was known by Robbins or in any way impacted his decision to favor the Cambodian classical dance style but it certainly seems to help give some insight into his choice. Perhaps the most important thing to note is Cambodian classical dance is a court dance that was performed by the ‘”wives, concubines or relatives of the ruler”(6) as is the case in Robbins ballet where all of the principal dancers were female and “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” was performed for King of Siam by his wives and concubines.

The choice of Cambodian classical dance, for the presentation of the “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” demonstrated a strong aesthetic on Robbins’ part. Robbins was aided in the initial stages of research by Mara von Sellheim, a trained Cambodian classical dancer from the court of Phnom Penh(7). Robbins spent a considerable amount of time with his dance ensemble working on the techniques of Cambodian classical dance, specifically the “flexed feet and hyperextended, turned –back fingers of Southeast Asian court dancing”(8).

It was not only a challenge to work in a dance form with which Robbins wasn’t overly familiar with, but he had the added task of getting Western bodies to embrace Eastern dance forms(9). As many classical Cambodian dancers are trained from a young age to achieve the aesthetic of the curvature of the hands, feet and overall structure of the dance form, classically trained ballet dancers, from a Western perspective, are not able to reach the same degree of curvature. To achieve an authentic replication of the dance form, Robbins enlisted the help of von Sellheim to teach his cast of dancers a considerable amount of Cambodian court dance vocabulary(10). Early rehearsals began with classes that were limited to technique, but his submergence into this new dance form did not stop there. It was even reported that by some of his dancers that the rehearsal process for the Siamese court was brutal, spending hours on their knees, working the painful and unfamiliar Siamese technique(11). Dancers were also taught the traditional styles that honored and defined their characters(12).

During the course of creating his choreography, Robbins’ found himself trapped in the confines of the authentic dance form and the dramatic undertones of Stowe’s classic novel. This led Rodgers to suggest that he not let the concern over the authenticity of the movements cripple him(13), in fact it was Rodgers who reminded Robbins of his success in High Button Shoes (1947) thanks in large part to the comical way he approached that particular ballet(14). Rodgers advised him to, “use the Siamese movement, but don’t become a slave to it,”(15) further advising Robbins that he and Hammerstein did not set out to recreate Siam but to create their own version of it(16).

With this revelation, “instead of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s melodrama, he saw gentle humor and naïve poetry; instead of a replica of Asian ballet, an inspired fusion”(17). This fusion of his ballet background and the seamless integration of Cambodian dance conventions are most readily seen when Eliza, who is making her escape from King Simon, skates across the ice with the help of an angel. As they glide across the cloth river that is used to represent the ice, Eliza and the angel use flexed feet and hyper-extended fingers while performing movements associated with classical Western ballet. These ballet techniques are so well hidden in the Cambodian dance vocabulary that it is almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. This perfect marriage of the two dance forms coupled with Robbins innate ability to add poignant and touching moments are a testament to Robbins ability to use his ballet background as a solid foundation from which to create a dance style almost entirely his own.

Robbins revealed the beauty and intricacies of the Siamese culture, through dance, to expand the understanding and tangibility of Asian traditions. This understanding is most poignantly seen in a review of the original production by New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson. He states, “Robbins use of the exotic beauty of Siam in a beautifully caparisoned ballet has captured some of the pulsing formalism of Asiatic theatre… and it tells more about these people than a writer can.” Atkinson even mentions Robbins successful fusion of East and West, in his ability to put together “a stunning ballet of Eastern dancing with some American Humor”(18).

It is no coincidence that Robbins original choreography has been remounted in every Broadway revival since its conception(19), even subsequent community and regional theatre companies worldwide. His original Broadway chorography became such a part of the show that it was preserved in the 1956 film version of the musical staring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. Although Robbins did not win the Tony Award for chorography that year, losing out to Pal Joey chorographer Robert Alton(20), the constant reuse of his dances speaks not only to the timelessness of his choreography but also to the relevance of his fusion.

In the performing arts, audiences generally feel a need to classify something as one or the other, perhaps to better help us understand or classify what we are watching, but Robbins created a fusion that defied the standards of choreography found in Broadway productions of the time. A fusion of Broadway spectacle and authentic replication neatly married to universal foundation. It is important to remember that as a chorographer it is best to be grounded in our foundation and technique but through research and understanding of how to fuse the complicated movements of different dance styles, a new and timeless creation can arise. Robbins success in The King and I wasn’t found in authenticity but in the fusion of where the East and West danced through cultures.

1 - Although the country of Siam is no longer recognized and is now known as Thailand, it is the term that is used in all sources that refer to the musical.

2 - Jowitt, 182

3 - Jowitt, 183

4 - Brandon, 21

5 - Brandon, 20

6 - Brandon, 21

7 - Jowitt, 180

8 - Vaill, 183

9 - Lawrence, 183

10 - Jowitt, 181

11 - Lawrence, 183

12 - Jowitt, 181

13 - Vaill, 186

14 - Rodgers, 274

15 - Larence, 182

16 - Rodgers, 273

17 - Vaill, 186

18 - Lawrence, 185

19 - Playbill.com

20 - Lawrence, 185

Bibliography
Atkinson, Brooks. “The King and I: Newest Musical Play by Rodgers and
Hammerstein Set in Old Siam.” The New York Times (8 April 1951) 40. Retrieved 24 September 2012.

Brandon, James. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Hammerstein, Oscar. The King and I. New York: Random House, 1951. Print.

Jowitt, Deborah. Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. New York: Simon &Schuster, Inc., 2004. Print

Lawrence, Greg. Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2001. Print.

Long, Robert Emmet. Broadway, the Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors 1940 to the Present. New York: TheContinuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2001. Print.

Mordden, Ethan. Rodgers & Hammerstein. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,1992. Print.

Rodgers, Richard. Musical Stages: An Autobiography. 1975. Cambridge, MA:Da Capo Press, 2002. Print.

Vaill, Amanda. Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins. New York: Broadway Books, 2006. Print.

“Inside the Playbill: The King and I- Opening Night at Neil Simon Theatre. “ Playbillvault.com. Web. Retrieved 25 September 2012. http://www.playbillvault.com/Show/Detail/852/The-King-and-I

The King and I. Dir. Walter Lang. Perf. Yul Brynner, Deboarh Kerr, Rita Moreno. Twentieth Century Fox. 1956. VHS.

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