Remembering Jerome Robbins
July 30, 2008
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” Jerome Robbins looms large in pop culture. Ten years after his death, America remembers him as the choreographic genius behind “West Side Story” and “Fancy Free.”
He was a giant in the dance world, too. In fact, when Robbins died in 1998, the whole dance world grieved.
“We have a great variety of new ballets being made at New York City Ballet, but truly the great geniuses were passed at that moment, the icons: (George) Balanchine, now Robbins, too,” Vail International Dance Festival Director Damian Woetzel recalled.
Robbins shaped an entire generation of dancers. To Pacific Northwest Ballet Director Peter Boal, Robbins was a teacher.
Boal was 10 the first time he danced for Robbins, as Cupid in the New York City Ballet’s production of “Mother Goose.” When Boal practiced leading Prince Charming through the forest, Robbins urged him to get into character by pretending that stepping on a twig would give him away.
“To me it was just the last three minutes of the ballet, but to him it was this whole fleshed out character that this 10-year-old had to play,” Boal said.
Thursday night, Boal will team up with Woetzel to give audiences an inside glimpse of Robbins’ works. With film clips of Robbins instructing, performances of his dances by the Pacific Northwest Ballet and a discussion with the audience, “UpClose: Jerome Robbins” will consider: Just who was Jerome Robbins?
Woetzel and Boal worked with Robbins during the mid ’80s, a delicate time in the ballet world. The great choreographic master George Balanchine passed away in 1983 and some dancers feared the craft would flounder.
“We were lamenting the death of George Balanchine, and people were wondering where those influences would be found,” Boal said. “And there was Jerry stepping up and saying, ‘I’m right here. I’m ready to work.’ So it was important for my generation to have him.”
Robbins was choreographing for the New York City Ballet at that time, and his presence there was a major factor in Woetzel’s decision to join the company as a teen.
Woetzel remembers sitting in on a rehearsal of “Fancy Free” and thinking: “My God, it’s better than the dreams.”
He and Boal worked together with Robbins on many dances, including “In Memory Of…” and “Quiet City.”
“It was an interesting year in New York because it was in the ’80s, and AIDS was really affecting all New York artists, and Jerry was losing a lot of people that were very dear to him,” Boal recalled. “So he made these ballets with angels in them.”
Working under Robbins was incredibly demanding. Woetzel became acquainted with Robbins’ style during the 13 years they worked together. “If you were five minutes late, he’d say, ‘You owe me five,’ ” Woetzel recalled. “It was serious.”
But the hard work in the studio paid off. Woetzel said he learned valuable lessons from Robbins about developing a character.
Robbins once offered a suggestion for Woetzel during rehearsals for an Italian-themed ballet called “Donizetti Variations.”
“He said, ‘That section with the girls ” Don’t forget: You’re sort of the guy in the group. You’re making pizza and pasta. There’s sauce in the air.’ I remember thinking, ‘I got it,’ ” Woetzel said.
That moment summed up Robbins’ approach to dance.
“Everything was from a sense of theater,” Woetzel said. “How it plays, how it feels. And there were technical corrections, too, you know? How you do a step, that sort of stuff, but it was all about how you made it happen on stage, how you made it live, and I treasure those corrections.”
Robbins was a paradox in many ways. Though he stood about 5 foot 9, his imposing presence made him seem taller. He attended New York’s finest social events yet could be shy and awkward in conversation, Boal said. A self-proclaimed homosexual, he had romances with both men and women, according to “Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins.”
Although he could reign unchallenged at any ballet company, he chose to create at the one place where he had a rival.
“He oddly lived in Balanchine’s shadow for all of those years at the New York City Ballet, and I think people really had to wake up in the ballet world and realize that there were amazing contributions done by Robbins,” Boal said.
Robbins was born in 1918 in a Jewish enclave in Manhattan. As a teen he set out to study chemistry at New York University but money woes forced him to drop out and take a sharp turn in his career. In the 1940s, Robbins became a soloist for the Ballet Theatre, where he attracted attention for roles like Hermes in “Helen of Troy.” He also created and starred in his famous ballet “Fancy Free” in 1944 at the Metropolitan Opera.
The following decade brought highs and lows. Although Robbins produced some of his most enduring Broadway works ” “The King and I,” “The Pajama Game” and “West Side Story” ” he fell under suspicion of Communist sympathies and was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He avoided the blacklist by naming Communist sympathizers, but the guilt of betraying his friends haunted him for the rest of his life.
Robbins picked up a pair of Tony Awards for his 1964 masterpiece “Fiddler on the Roof.” In 1972, he became ballet master of the New York City Ballet and continued to work in ballet throughout the next decade.
“Obviously he was the biggest star that Broadway ever saw, so that chapter of his life was well established, but I think his real love was in the ballet world, in classical ballet,” Boal said.
Robbins’ love for ballet continued even as his body faltered. He began to lose his balance and had trouble coming to terms with the fact that he could no longer demonstrate as he once could, Boal recalled. Despite a bicycle accident, heart-valve surgery and the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Robbins staged Les Noces for City Ballet in 1998.
When he died of a stroke at 79, the dance world coped by clinging to his memory.
“Immediately all these stories that you heard about, well, ‘Balanchine said such and such’ and then it was ‘Jerry said such and such'” Woetzel said, noting it became a competition about who remembered Robbins best. “And it speaks to their genius that our moments with them matter so much to us.'”
On a clear summer night at the Ford Amphitheater in Vail, the crowd was mesmerized by three sailors dancing in their iconic white uniforms and hats. The Pacific Northwest Ballet performed “Fancy Free” Tuesday as a tribute to Robbins. Flirting with girls, joking among themselves, the sailors demonstrate Robbins’ flair for fusing ballet with drama.
The performance in Vail illustrates Robbins’ lasting legacy. His work is still deeply entrenched on Broadway, and has been building momentum at companies like the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
“Jerry was a completely American original,” Boal said. “He came forward with a whole new dance style. It reflected things that people did every day on the street, and in bars, and when they were roughhousing and when they were flirting. He brought all of that great, unique human vocabulary into the world of classical ballet. And it was an infusion that was exciting and it brought broad appeal to ballet that maybe wasn’t there before.”
High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or firstname.lastname@example.org.