In Other Words Jerome Rob­bins: A Life in Dance by Wendy Lesser

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Like the open­ing chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” the first notes of Leonard Bern­stein’s score to Fancy

Free are a procla­ma­tion. An old bar­tender leans on an empty bar, serenely tap­ping his fingers to a blues song on the ra­dio, when sud­denly, four trum­pet blasts in­ter­rupt the calm — in­tro­duc­ing, in quick suc­ces­sion, three cartwheel­ing sailors. They are in New York for a brief shore leave, and they are go­ing to live those few hours as thrillingly as they can.

What those trum­pets pro­claimed at their 1944 New York de­but, be­sides the sailors’ ar­rival, was the pres­ence of a young com­poser of cap­ti­vat­ing range and imag­i­na­tion, matched by a chore­og­ra­pher whose in­ven­tive­ness, hu­mor, and ca­pac­ity for in­ter­twined elo­quence and nar­ra­tive had no true prece­dent. The young chore­og­ra­pher was also danc­ing on­stage as one of the sailors. His name was Jerome Rob­bins.

Per­haps tak­ing her cue from those trum­pets, Wendy Lesser knows how to start a work with a blast. Her brief new bi­og­ra­phy of Rob­bins, pub­lished in Oc­to­ber to com­mem­o­rate the cen­ten­nial of his birth, opens with the line, “He may well have been the most hated man on Broad­way.” Thus com­mences a rar­ity: the kind of bi­og­ra­phy that swal­lows you whole, an ir­re­sistible page-turner with equal parts acute dance crit­i­cism, psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight, and good old-fash­ioned theater gos­sip. No one would ever walk out of Fancy Free; no theater or bal­let geek would put this book down mid­way.

About that open­ing: Rob­bins could in­deed be mean. He no­to­ri­ously for­bade the ac­tors play­ing the Sharks and the Jets from in­ter­act­ing with one an­other dur­ing re­hearsals for West Side Story, and dur­ing Fid­dler on the Roof’s out-of-town try­outs, he told the ac­tor play­ing Mo­tel, “I had to walk out dur­ing the wed­ding scene last night be­cause the idea of that girl be­ing forced to marry you was so re­volt­ing.” (Rob­bins chore­ographed and di­rected both Broad­way shows.) His cru­elest act was his “friendly wit­ness” tes­ti­mony be­fore the House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee in 1953, when he gave the com­mit­tee the names of col­leagues and friends who had sup­posed ties to com­mu­nism. “Even if oth­ers could have for­given him for his HUAC tes­ti­mony, he would never be able to for­give him­self,” Lesser writes.

He also had a ten­der side, made man­i­fest in his works for and fea­tur­ing chil­dren —

Pe­ter Pan (chore­og­ra­pher and di­rec­tor) and “The March of the Si­amese Chil­dren” in The King and I (chore­og­ra­pher) — and in some of the re­la­tion­ships that in­flu­enced his life and art. Lesser gives sub­stan­tial cov­er­age to Rob­bins’ in­ti­mate friend­ship with New York City Bal­let star Tanaquil Le Clercq, both be­fore and in the decades fol­low­ing her con­trac­tion of po­lio at age twenty-seven, which ended her danc­ing ca­reer. (The friend­ship ap­pears to have been more af­fec­tion­ate than ro­man­tic, although Rob­bins had re­la­tion­ships with both men and women.) His hu­man­ity may have been most ev­i­dent in the pro­found aware­ness of his dancers, which was at the heart of his chore­o­graphic ge­nius. For in­stance, Lesser de­scribes re­hearsal footage archived in the Jerome Rob­bins Dance Di­vi­sion at the New York City Pub­lic Li­brary, of Rob­bins re­hears­ing A Suite of Dances with Mikhail Barysh­nikov: “The feel­ing gen­er­ated by the two men in the stu­dio is rem­i­nis­cent of a highly mov­ing pas­sage in Mark Mor­ris’ The Hard Nut, where the older Drosselmeier is in­tro­duc­ing the youth­ful Nutcracker to the world — ex­cept that in this case the world that Rob­bins is show­ing Barysh­nikov is not the wider world of all pos­si­ble ex­pe­ri­ence, but his own in­te­rior world, his own in­ner life.”

Lesser writes beau­ti­fully about dance, cap­tur­ing both move­ment and spirit in her prose on such no­table Rob­bins works as The Cage, Af­ter­noon of a

Faun, and The Gold­berg Vari­a­tions. She seems less in­ter­ested in Rob­bins’ chore­og­ra­phy for theater than for the bal­let world, and even less yet in his di­rect­ing for theater. The Rob­bins who emerges is hardly a mere “Broad­way hoofer” whose bal­letic works never achieved great­ness. Nor is he, in com­par­i­son to “the Mas­ter” Ge­orge Balan­chine — af­fec­tion­ately known as Mr. B — “a crass Amer­i­can lag­ging in the aris­to­cratic Rus­sian’s wake,” as Balan­chine loy­al­ists may con­test. Lesser por­trays Rob­bins’ in­tu­itive dra­matic sense as just as cru­cial to bal­let’s en­durance as Balan­chine’s ab­strac­tion was.

Lesser hardly dis­misses Rob­bins’ chore­og­ra­phy for the theater, de­scrib­ing West Side Story’s rad­i­cal nat­u­ral­ism and the roots of Fid­dler on the

Roof ’s danc­ing in Rob­bins’ youth­ful ex­pe­ri­ences of Ju­daism. But her love is for the bal­letic works, which at times means some the­atri­cal sac­ri­fices. Poor Gypsy, de­spite the riches it has prof­fered over the years — among them, both Ethel Mer­man and Patti LuPone as Mama Rose — gets a mere para­graph (and is, strangely, com­pared un­fa­vor­ably to

Pe­ter Pan). Rob­bins staged sev­eral plays, in­clud­ing the Broad­way pre­miere of Ber­tolt Brecht’s Mother

Courage and Her Chil­dren, star­ring Anne Ban­croft; his stylis­tic choices for such pro­duc­tions are not ex­plored here. But if such sac­ri­fices must be made in fa­vor of Lesser’s writ­ing on the bal­letic form, so be it. Rob­bins the artis­tic chore­og­ra­pher, not Rob­bins the Mr. B wannabe, de­serves his time on­stage.

— Grace Paraz­zoli

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.