A major creative force on both the Broadway and ballet stages beginning in 1944, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins (born Rabinowitz 1918) extended the possibilities of musical theater and brought a contemporary American perspective to classical dance.
American director and choreographer Jerome Robbins was equally renowned for his work in musical theater and ballet and made auspicious debuts in both fields in 1944. On April 18, Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater) presented the world premiere of Fancy Free, which followed the exploits of three sailors on shore leave in New York. That ballet became the springboard for On the Town, a musical comedy which premiered eight months later and featured choreography by Robbins. Over the next 20 years, Robbins choreographed and/or directed 15 other musicals and "show doctored" five more. A partial list of his Broadway credits includes High Button Shoes (1947), The King and I (1951), Pajama Game (1954), Peter Pan (1954), Bells Are Ringing (1956), West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), and Fiddler on the Roof (1964).
During and after the years he was active on Broadway he also earned a reputation as the greatest classical choreographer born in the United States. Working mostly with the New York City Ballet, he choreographed 61 ballets through 1989. Among his finest were Interplay (1945), The Cage (1951), Afternoon of a Faun (1953), The Concert (1956), Dances at a Gathering (1969), The Goldberg Variations (1971), In G Major (1975), Other Dances (1976), The Four Seasons (1979), Glass Pieces (1983), and Ives, Songs (1988).
Robbins was born Jerome Rabinowitz in New York on October 11, 1918, to Russian Jewish parents who came to America to flee the pogroms. He grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, and was in his late teens when he began studying at the Sandor-Sorel Dance Center in Brooklyn. He later took lessons in modern, Spanish, and Oriental dance.
Between 1937 and 1940 Robbins appeared in the chorus of four Broadway musicals and also danced at Camp Tamiment, a summer resort for adults where revues were staged by aspiring performers. It was there that he had his first opportunity to choreograph. In 1940 he joined the newly created Ballet Theater as a dancer and studied with the choreographers Antony Tudor and Eugene Loring. Ballet Theater had a particular penchant for Russian ballets— Robbins often said that he spent a good deal of time in "boots, bloomers and a peasant wig"—and Fancy Free was, in part, a reaction to that repertoire.
Successful Musicals and Ballets
The ballet—in which Robbins danced "the rumba" sailor—was set to a commissioned score by the relatively unknown Leonard Bernstein and was an instant masterpiece. It was not just the jazz inflections or familiar, everyday gestures incorporated into the choreography that made the piece special. A ballet portraying contemporary American characters behaving in contemporary American fashion was virtually unheard of at the time, and wartime audiences recognized the people onstage at once.
Robbins then took his choreographic talents to Broadway with similar success. On the Town marked the first time that dance had been so fully integrated into a Broadway show, prompting one critic to suggest that it be called "a ballet comedy instead of a musical comedy."
For the next few years Robbins divided his time between Broadway and ballet. His choreography was singled out as the high point of Billion Dollar Baby (1946); High Button Shoes (1947); Look Ma, I'm Dancin' (1948), which he co-directed with George Abbott; Miss Liberty (1949); and Call Me Madam (1950). High Button Shoes earned him his first Tony award.
In 1949 George Balanchine invited Robbins to join the New York City Ballet as dancer, choreographer, and associate artistic director. During the next decade he created ten ballets for the company, and his moody, evocative dances were a wonderful contrast to Balanchine's plotless neoclassicism.
In 1951 Robbins choreographed Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, the most sophisticated Broadway show of which he had thus far been a part. But the show that would forever cement his reputation as one of the most important figures in the history of Broadway was West Side Story, which opened in 1957 and continued to have an impact on the course of musical theater into the 1990s. This modern, updated Romeo and Juliet saga was the first musical conceived, choreographed, and directed by one man. It marked the culmination of many innovations that originally appeared in On the Town and earned Robbins his second Tony award for choreography.
Innovations in All His Work
In 1959 Robbins directed and choreographed Gypsy, another theatrical landmark. That same year he left City Ballet to devote his energies to his own company, Ballets: USA, which was formed in 1958 and disbanded in 1961. Among the works that came out of Ballets: USA was Moves (1959), a startling experiment in that it is performed without music. It was added to the repertory of City Ballet.
Robbins was back on Broadway with two shows in 1964. He was production supervisor on Funny Girl and director and choreographer of Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler won nine Tony awards, with Robbins winning for both direction and choreography. It was Robbins who saw the universality in this simple tale about a milkman wrestling with his religious beliefs. He envisioned a work that depicted the dissolution of a community, which inspired lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock to write "Tradition," the song that informs the entire musical.
Two years after Fiddler, Robbins established the American Theater Laboratory, an experimental workshop designed to explore theater forms involving dance, song, and speech. It lasted through 1968, but none of the work done by the group developed into a project that was seen by the public. Among those to participate was Robert Wilson, who later became known for his avant-garde creations. Robbins won a Best Director Oscar for his work on the film version of West Side Story (1961) and also received a special Academy Award for his choreography. His work on the telecast of Peter Pan (1955) earned him an Emmy.
In 1969 Robbins returned to City Ballet as one of the company's ballet masters. The first work he choreographed was the hour-long Dances at a Gathering, which is set to various Chopin piano pieces and is regarded by many as his finest ballet. Ten dancers perform in various combinations—solos, duets, trios, quartets, and onward— expressing a range of moods and emotions, all the while suggesting a sense of community. The variety of the choreography is remarkable, and one critic called the piece "a celebration of dance."
Robbins was particularly productive during the 1970s, during which time he choreographed more than 20 pieces for City Ballet, including The Goldberg Variations (1971), a 90-minute exploration of the famous Bach score, and Watermill (1972), which borrows freely from Eastern theater techniques and elevates stillness to an art form. In 1976, for a non-City Ballet gala, he choreographed Other Dances— another Chopin ballet—for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. After Baryshnikov joined City Ballet for a year beginning in 1979, Robbins went on to choreograph two more works for him: Opus 19, "The Dreamer," and The Four Seasons, in which Baryshnikov danced the fall section.
In the 1980s Robbins continued to expand his vision. Robbins was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor in 1981. In 1983 he was named co-ballet master-in-chief of City Ballet (with Peter Martins), shortly before Balanchine's death. Robbins' ballet Ives, Songs premiered several months before his 70th birthday in 1988 and poignantly depicted a man looking back at his life. That same year Robbins literally delved into his past: He went to work recreating and reconstructing some of the highlights from his 20 years in musical theater for archival purposes and wound up creating a new show, Jerome Robbins' Broadway. The musical opened in February 1989, marked Robbins' return to Broadway after a 25-year absence, and earned him his fifth Tony award.
Robbins retired from City Ballet in 1990, but continued his creative pursuits. In 1994 he premiered A Suite of Dances, a solo work performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov set to music from Bach's unaccompanied suites. That same year the School of American Ballet premiered his 2 + 3 Inventions, another dance set to the music of Bach. The next January (1995) a major work by Robbins, Brandenburg, was preformed by the City Ballet. Brandenburg was described by critic Terry Teachout as the "missing link in Robbins's output."
Throughout his career Robbins combined theatrical savvy with an unerring sense of movement to create potent, moving panoramas. The diversity of his work is astonishing, but if there is one thread linking much of his art, it is his repeated exploration of community. His ballets have been danced by many of the world's major companies, including American Ballet Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem, Joffrey Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, England's Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, San Francisco Ballet, and Australian Ballet.
His work is examined in Repertory in Review (1977) by Nancy Reynolds; Broadway Musicals (1979) by Martin Gottfried; Broadway Song & Story (1985), edited by Otis. L. Guernsey, Jr.; and "Robbin's 'Fancy"' by Tobi Tobias, which appeared in Dance Magazine in January 1980. A critical review of his choreography is provided by Terry Teachout in Dance Magazine (May 1997). □
Born Jerome Rabinowitz, Robbins was one of two children of Russian-Jewish immigrants Harry Rabinowitz and Lena (Rips) Rabinowitz, a homemaker. His father first managed a delicatessen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but the family moved in the 1920s, first to Jersey City and later to Weehawken, New Jersey, where Harry Rabinowitz and his brother-in-law ran the Comfort Corset Company. The entire family eventually changed its name to Robbins after Robbins started to become well known during the 1940s.
Robbins discovered dance as a teenager. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1935 and enrolled that fall at New York University, intending to follow his parents' wishes and study either journalism or chemistry. However, because his family's finances were strained during the Great Depression, and he was markedly unenthusiastic about his studies, Robbins's career in higher education was short-lived. After a year of college, he returned to dancing as an apprentice at Senya Gluck-Sandor's dance center, where his sister Sonia already danced professionally. He made his professional debut in 1937 with the Yiddish Art Theater.
By this time Robbins had begun to study ballet and a wide variety of other dance forms and techniques. He landed small dancing roles, appearing in the chorus lines of four Broadway musicals. His first opportunity to choreograph came when he went to work at Camp Tamiment, a summer resort for adults in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. By 1940 Robbins was dancing with George Balanchine's Ballet Theater in New York City, where he eventually became associate ballet master, a post he held, except for a brief period, until 1983. Despite his early success, Robbins was restless and weary of classical ballet. "Why can't we do ballets about our own subjects," he complained, "meaning our life here in America?"
Robbins's first attempt at breaking with dance conventions came in 1944 with Fancy Free, a lighthearted, half-hour celebration about three sailors on shore leave in New York. Robbins's choreography, which drew on dances from the Lindy to the waltz, was an immediate hit with audiences. Eight months later, the play reappeared as the more elaborate musical comedy On the Town. After the success of On the Town, Robbins went on to choreograph many Broadway shows, including The King and I (1950), Peter Pan (1954), and Gypsy (1959). Unquestionably, his greatest triumph was the 1957 production of West Side Story, a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, for which he won an Antoinette Perry (Tony) award in 1958 for choreography.
During the 1960s Robbins built his reputation, not only as a choreographer, but also as a stage director. He began the decade as choreographer and codirector, with Robert Wise, of the film version of West Side Story, for which he won two Academy Awards, a special award for choreography as well as one for directing. Robbins returned to the theater in 1962 with the off-Broadway production Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad, a play satirizing the conventions of the theater. He followed this effort in 1963 with the more serious antiwar play Mother Courage and Her Children.
Although Robbins devoted himself more to directing than choreographing during the early 1960s, he had not completely divorced himself from musical theater. In 1962 he was summoned to heal the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was in danger of being shelved before it opened. Even though the play received a warm reception and enjoyed a long Broadway run, Robbins was never credited for his role in the production. A year later in 1963, Robbins was again approached to help with a musical in trouble. This time the play was Funny Girl, which was based on the life of Jewish comedienne and singer Fanny Brice. It was Robbins's decision to cast a relatively unknown singer named Barbra Streisand in the title role. The gamble paid off; Funny Girl became a hit and made the twenty-one-year-old Streisand an overnight sensation.
In 1964 Robbins agreed to direct the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, the tale of a Jewish family and community living in a small Russian village in 1905. The project quickly became personal for Robbins in many ways. His father had fled from a small town similar to the one portrayed in the play, and the story enabled Robbins to more fully explore his Russian-Jewish heritage. Fiddler on the Roof was among the greatest successes of Robbins's career, earning him two more Tony Awards (best director and best choreography), yet the play was also his last original Broadway musical.
After choreographing and directing Fiddler, Robbins turned his attention to the creation of several original ballets. In 1966 he received a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to experiment with lyric theater. For two years, the American Theater Laboratory, a hand-picked group of performers, met every day to work on movement improvisations that drew from dance forms and cultural rituals around the world. During rehearsals the performers were sworn to secrecy, and no formal production has ever been performed based on Robbins's work.
In 1969 Robbins, working in conjunction with the New York City Ballet, choreographed what many consider to be his masterpiece, Dances at a Gathering. This production marked a clear break with Robbins's choreographic style of the past, as he moved away from "story ballets" to works that were more abstract and neoclassical in form. The ballet included ten dancers in various combinations, expressing a wide range of moods and emotions. Critics praised Robbins's diverse choreography, describing it simply as "a celebration of dance."
For the next twenty years, Robbins entered the most prolific phase of his career, choreographing more than twenty ballets. In 1988 he returned to Broadway after a twenty-five-year absence, reconstructing some of the highlights from his years in musical theater with Jerome Robbins' Broadway. The production earned him his fifth Tony award. In July 1998, after suffering a stroke, Robbins died at his home. His remains were cremated, and the ashes were scattered near his beach home in Bridgehampton, New York. He was three months short of his eightieth birthday.
Throughout his distinguished career, Robbins combined what one writer identified as "theatrical savvy with an un-erring sense of movement to create potent, moving panoramas." Robbins's creativity knew few bounds; always in search of new challenges, he created a vast and eclectic body of work, often drawing on American themes and issues. However, beneath the diversity and scope of Robbins's work there was always the theme of community and friendship—among sailors on a lark, New York street gangs, Russian-Jewish peasants, or isolated souls linked only by experience, emotion, and time. Robbins's death marked the end of an era in dance, during which American choreographers brought a distinctive vitality to American musical theater.
The most complete biography of Robbins is Greg Lawrence, Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins (2001). Robbins's work is examined in Nancy Reynolds, Repertory in Review (1977). Martin Gottfried, Broadway Musicals (1979); Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., ed., Broadway Song & Story (1985); Christena Schlundt, Dance in the Musical Theater: Jerome Robbins and His Peers (1989); and Robert Emmet Long, Broadway, The Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors 1940 to the Present (2001), all contain insightful discussions of Robbins's life and career. An obituary is in the New York Times (27 Dec. 1998).