Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: Jerome Robbins

Of all the performing arts, ballet is one of the few that I don't seem to engage with as much as, say, symphonic performances, operas, and musical theater. It isn't that I'm not interested in it, because I am. The more I've observed dance, though, I've wondered if my hesitation has been from a lack of understanding about dance as an art form. Its abstraction and temporality on stage make it seem so fleeting and thus difficult to understand. I also believe that when it comes to dance, I prefer to be one of the dancers rather than an observer. Dance for me is more of a participatory act, and not one of interest simply to watch. I'm not suddenly planning to take ballet lessons, but I think this in part explains my ongoing desire to go dancing in clubs, as well as my earlier dance experiences doing Italian folk dancing (yes, in costume!) and being a Shark in my high school production of West Side Story (which, alas, I had to give up halfway through rehearsals). My aunt in Italy also was a successful ballerina after World War II, so there is no doubt that dance courses through my family's blood. Of course, the reality of dance is that it is not mere abstraction. Choreography is an intricate art form that involves harmonics, balance, scoring, and lots of practice. Its association with music ties it intricately to another art form, and that in some ways both complicates it and enhances its beauty.

In the spirit of dance then, I had a pleasant surprise at 3am this morning (see, insomnia isn't always a bad thing) when I caught a new PBS special from the American Masters series entitled Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. This was a 90-minute biographical tribute to Robbins, the supreme choreographer and director who has given us some of the greatest Broadway musicals of the 20th century. If that wasn't enough, he also choreographed and produced many exquisite ballets. I knew little about Robbins himself before watching this segment. Of course, I was more familiar with his work on Broadway, which I suspect is how most people know him. The special involves interviews with numerous people who knew and worked with Robbins, from the composer Stephen Sondheim to the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Still photographs, video sequences, and movie excerpts are interwoven with the interviews to highlight aspects of his long career.

Robbins was born into a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York in 1918. He died in 1998 after nearly 60 years in the world of the performing arts. He never married and was bisexual. The greatest blight on his career came during the era of McCarthyism, when he succumbed to pressure out of fear of being outed and thus named names of friends and colleagues. The PBS special highlights at the end that this was one of the great guilts he carried with him until his death. According to critic Clive Barnes, Jerome Robbins "was an extremely demanding man, not always popular with his dancers, although always respected. He was a perfectionist who sometimes, very quietly, reached perfection." Looking at the segments for West Side Story, you realize in retrospect how shockingly modern and innovative Robbins' choreography was for the time, something I had not realized until watching this.

The picture you see here is by Jesse Gerstein and comes from the website for The Jerome Robbins Foundation and Robbins Rights Trust. The Foundation provides grants related to dance and the performing arts, and the Trust licenses Robbins' works. That website also has two essays on Robbins' life worth reading. For a gay/bisexual perspective, see this biographical account on, an online gay/lesbian encyclopedia of the arts (for which I have written a few articles). But without a doubt, check out the website for the PBS American Masters series on Robbins. There are links to videos from the special itself. I heartily recommend it for anyone interested in dance. Below, though, I found on YouTube an early video of "Cool" from a performance of West Side Story that I think really gives you a sense of the modernity of the choreography. It's fun to see it as part of a live performance too, even though the image quality isn't the greatest. As you watch it, notice the high level of athletic ballet steps integrated into what is essentially a pop tune musical. Fascinating stuff. (If you can't see the video, click here.)

1 comment:

Stephanie Race said...

Thanks for the post. Now I have to find the program on pbs and watch it.