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