Most people know the man’s choreography even if they don’t even know his name. The snapping of fingers from two gangs, their exuberant leaps and sharp turns, the Jets and the Sharks, down the streets and alleys of Manhattan, are captured forever in the 1961 film West Side Story. The choreographer – and also director – is Jerome Robbins.
In 2017, West Side Story the musical came to Singapore. The rendition presented here adhered closely to the original 1957 version – director/choreographer Joey McKneely had learnt the original choreography from Robbins himself. Quintessentially post-war American, the work of Jerome Robbins tended to deal with psychological drama with a deft, playful touch. Famously striding the worlds of ballet and Broadway, this creative giant will have his work shown in Singapore again in June. This time, it will be in a work performed by the Paris Opera Ballet.
Sandwiched between two works by William Forsythe and Crystal Pite, Jerome Robbins’ In The Night will be shown. The Paris Opera Ballet was considered Robbins’ second home for his ballets; he often travelled to stage his works for them. His first home for choreographing in the ballet idiom was the New York City Ballet, where his classical language and stagecraft were developed by a then-growing American institution.
Jerome Robbins and Paris Opera Ballet
Such was the nature of his relationship to the Paris Opera, that when “A Festival of Jerome Robbins Ballets” took place in 1990, a three-week retrospective of his work by New York City Ballet, six dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet (Isabelle Guérin, Jean Guizerix, Fanny Gaida, Manuel Legris, Elisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire) flew in to perform In The Night to end off the festival. According to Deborah Jowitt’s fascinating and comprehensive biography of Jerome Robbins, the festival took place in part because Peter Martins, then New York City Ballet’s ballet master in chief, now carefully disgraced, sought to woo Jerome Robbins, whose personal investment in the company was teetering. The Festival made Robbins realise that he could not quit the company “cold turkey” (Claudia Roth Pierpont for The New Yorker, July 1990) so the relationship continued.
When Jerome Robbins passed on, the Paris Opera honoured their cherished guest with a gala program. They performed four of his ballets, including In The Night, and the entire company – led by the school’s students – appeared in a grand défilé (literally translated as Big Parade) in order of rank.
Jerome Robbins and In The Night
According to the critic Arlene Croce, In the Night was ‘Robbins’s first ballet to deal with mature people’. Created in 1970 after a personally-challenging Summer and also after the premiere of his wildly successful new work Dances At The Gathering in 1969, having spent 13 years away from New York City Ballet – the ballet confronts and portrays love in its many facets. In 1970, Robbins had already won several Tony awards for his work in musical theatre. He went back to New York City Ballet with his storytelling flair fully-established, his fiery artistic relationship with composer Leonard Bernstein legendary. For In The Night, Robbins elected to create dance to different nocturnes by Frederic Chopin. Bringing his musical talents to the fore, Robbins made a ballet of duets danced within the contrapuntal structure of Chopin’s nocturnes – the dancers held together a dramatic tension offered by romantic love.
When In The Night comes to Singapore, danced by the inimitable Paris Opera Ballet, it could be worth noting how a Parisian troupe explores and expresses these duets. As research for the dance enthusiast, there are versions of the dance that can be found in the libraries and the internet, as Robbins is the rare, extremely well-archived, choreographer.
TV and hints of the Cold War
In the 1980s he had an increased presence on TV, as NBC (National Broadcasting Company) aired Live From Studio 8H: An Evening of Jerome Robbins’ Ballets with members of the New York City Ballet. A retrospective of Robbins’s choreography aired on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in a 1986 instalment of Dance in America. The latter led to Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in 1989 in which he recreated the most successful production numbers from his 50-plus year career. Starring Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame) as the narrator, the show was a musical theatre anthology that breathed new life onto Broadway that season. It included stagings of cut numbers like Irving Berlin’s Mr. Monotony and well-known ones like the “Tradition” number from Fiddler on the Roof.
Jerome Robbins had a wide-ranging career, and he was well-loved, his creative engine and charisma well-documented. His rise to greatness and fame aligned with the rise in American confidence and leadership in the world. In the decades that produced the likes of George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown, this is also a man whose personal love affairs led to much turmoil, whose past Communist sympathies meant he was forced to give testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities*, and whose artistic relationships were frequently challenging, fraught with both excitement and precarity.
Working with dancers and collaborators
Deborah Jowitt has this to say about his well-known temper in the rehearsal room with dancers and collaborators: “The rages, cutting remarks, and occasional spiteful behaviour are not excusable, but they are understandable. In none of the other arts does the artist have to create a work from scratch with materials that get injured, have upset stomachs, talk back, or can’t learn fast.” He would be incredibly demanding in the rehearsal studio, no matter the circumstances. Indeed, when he taught the work New York Export: Opus Jazz to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1993, his finger snaps, pointing and shouting “you!” was interpreted as disrespect and even a hint of racism. The dancers in Alvin Ailey did not simply acquiesce power and respect to him, such was the difference in company culture.
His behaviour, however, should not be construed as cruelty; he often encouraged dancers and would even explain to the dancer Stephanie Saland why he did not cast her in a role she desired. Taking the time to offer encouragement, in an honest appraisal of her specific talents, he never said she would not ever take on the coveted role (Suzanne Farrell’s part in In Memory Of…) but instead that she should try again if she wished. This generosity of explaining his point of view to a fellow artist is not something every person in his position might take. There are examples of love affairs between himself and dancers, which would still end amicably; these days the power dynamic between workers in a company surely would make such romances more fraught, and certainly a potential nightmare for Human Resource departments.
Jerome Robbins attracted particular artists, some of whom would fall in love with him (and he with them). Perhaps chief amongst these artist-friends was Leonard Bernstein, who would often threaten to leave the partnership. Together they seemed to climb new heights in their artistry – their mutual excitement in creation, their ability to inspire each other, kept them going.
1989 – creative process for In The Night
This perhaps illustrates the amount of control Robbins preferred to have over his creations. For the work In The Night, many things had gone awry, however. Perhaps the mood of his life affected the mood of the work; the footloose and fancy freestyle of his work continued to be present but this time seemed to come with greater gravitas.
After the resounding success of Dances At A Gathering, still enthralled by the music of Chopin, Robbins decided to continue in the vein. When creating In The Night, he was in recovery from complicated romantic entanglements, a terrifying drug experiment leading to a bad trip, and an Achilles tendon injury.
During rehearsals, although he had received surgery and was on pain medication, Robbins found choreographing impossible. He was stuck in a wheelchair and had a plaster cast on his leg. His usual modus operandi involved demonstrating, thinking and showing ideas with his own body – and in this rehearsal process, he could not do it. Thankfully for audiences, and perhaps for the dancers too, finally, he was able to put the ballet together while on crutches.
Given the circumstances around the creation of In The Night, the soulful and elegiac meditation on love likely carried the tones of a more sombre and thoughtful artist. Perhaps, that the lovers meet in the night is no coincidence; the sense that love meets with the edges of our mortality, as much as they meet with the edges between two individuals, reminds us of the tenuous present, the looming end.
When In The Night entered the repertory of Paris Opera Ballet in 1989, it was actually to replace their purchase of the work Dances at a Gathering, which only entered the Paris Opera’s repertory in 1991. It was unheard of – and yet Robbins did it – that a choreographer would audition and rehearse dancers in Paris Opera Ballet for several weeks for a piece he would restage on them. He was so cherished that the company, then led by Rudolf Nureyev, gave him carte blanche. Even though their own strict hierarchies were a world apart from his habits at New York City Ballet (where individuals would be cast in roles no matter what their official standing the company was), they found a way to work together.
Much of Jerome Robbins’ creative life seems to be characterised by finding a way to make things work. His earliest years were in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighbourhood populated by many immigrants. His parents were Russian Jews, and the family moved when he was a toddler to New Jersey. Their family were connected to many in show business, including vaudeville performers and theatre owners. Perhaps his willingness (unlike George Balanchine, who shunned the work on Broadway) to create pieces for popular culture, can be traced to this awareness of the dynamism outside the hallowed halls of a ballet academy – and his start in scrappier spaces.
Robbins began studying modern dance in high school with Alys Bentley, who encouraged her pupils to improvise steps to music. Robbins said of his teacher that “what [she] gave me immediately was the absolute freedom to make up my own dances without inhibition or doubts.” Indeed, the sense of freedom in his works, the sense that as a choreographer he could play between rules rather than be constricted by them, is palpable. It is often noted that Robbins’ astute musicality meant that he would not merely dance on or with the music, but through it. When working with dancers used to giving 100% and trying their very best, he would remind them of the thrill for the audience, when they see a dancer casually coasting on stage, giving 70% instead whilst always showing that they have more to give. Mikhail Baryshnikov in A Suite of Dances displays this perfectly, perhaps. His only partner on stage is the cellist Wendy Sutter, and he would sometimes mark his steps, sometimes casually toss off a few movements, the piece intended to highlight his artistry more than his athletic virtuosity.
In his incredibly illustrious career, Robbins went from a stage debut with the Yiddish Art Theater, in a small role in The Brothers Ashkenazi, to making a body of work that would mark the times of post-War America in its newfound glory on the world stage – through the challenges of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic which would take the lives of many of his colleagues and friends.
One of the turning points in his life was when he joined the company of Senya Gluck Sandor, a leading exponent of expressionist modern dance. While he was dancing with this company, he also performed for the Yiddish Art Theater. It was Sandor who recommended that he change his name from Rabinowitz to Robbins – the challenges posed by antisemitism persist today, and even as the conflict between Israel and Palestine continues at the cost of countless human lives. In taking on a more American-sounding name, Jerome Robbins’ legacy reminds us of the times he lived in, that his tenacity and creative talents took place at a highly specific moment in American history, allowing the greatness of his gifts to flourish, while perhaps also at the cost of shedding off his Jewish last name. At the time, this was likely considered more of a step into his all-American identity, rather than a step away from his immigrant roots. Today, an artist would likely consider that choice rather differently.
Apart from recommending that he change his name, Sandor also encouraged Robbins to take ballet, which he did with Ella Daganova. In addition, he studied Spanish dancing with Helen Veola; Asian dance with Yeichi Nimura; and dance composition with Bessie Schonberg. He opted for this path instead of studying chemistry at New York University, where he dropped out after a year for financial reasons. Indeed, insight into this creative giant’s life reveals the fascinating dynamic between a singular man with a singular artistic vision, and his navigation through the politically-complex events of his time.
The King And I
From this part of the world, it would be particularly relevant to talk about Jerome Robbins’ involvement in The King and I – the musical, not the film (which continues to be banned in Thailand, because the King is not to be depicted). The project conceptualised by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the kings of musical theatre, inspired the screenplay. The 1952 Tony Award winner for Best New Musical**, The King And I was lauded as a collision of East and West, and Rodger and Hammerstein’s only collaboration with Robbins.
Thailand, the only country in South East Asia that has never had its sovereignty upended through European colonisation, probably occupied a particularly exciting imaginative potential for an audience seeking the exotic; but with the ubiquitous media presence of works like The King And I it is clear to see how representation works — or fails to work — in today’s generalized, contemporary global imagination. On the other hand, in particular, it is easy to see why Robbins was drawn to the thrill of creating the choreography for the show. It was the thrill of a new adventure, a new story, a clash of cultures. At the time (March 1951) few audience members would have been troubled by the implication that Western ways were superior, that Western ways signified progress. At the time, too, there was not much for him to go on about the dances of Siam – so instead he found material on neighbouring Cambodia and Laos instead, and also enlisted the help of the dancer-choreographer Mara von Sellheim, or, Mara. Mara was born in Manchuria of Russian-French parentage and was proficient in several Asian forms, a student of Cambodian dance at the court of Phnom Penh. She was running a small company in New York when her paths crossed with Robbins’. She worked on the project with him, teaching him and some dancers a considerable amount of the vocabulary and conventions of Cambodian court dance. As a Broadway choreographer, Robbins had no qualms about authenticity; when told that only demons hop in Cambodian dance, he would still have his protagonist Eliza hopping across the stage. He was given artistic license.
Jerome Robbins was an immensely prolific artist of his times. His creative pursuit saw him performing and choreographing between the ballet world, Broadway, and the screen; taking his skill at storytelling through movement and music to large audiences worldwide. When we watch Paris Opera Ballet perform In The Night, this illumination of Chopin’s nocturnes, and the deep dive into the world of lovers, might transport us through the imagination of a man who lived large and dreamed wild. And who always found a way to keep the dance alive.
* The House Committee on Un-American Activities was created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens and organizations suspected of having Fascist or Communist ties
**The King And I musical was itself based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which in turn was based on memoirs written by Anna Leonowens. Leonowens’ stories were autobiographical, she was school teacher to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. Various elements of her stories have been called into question, and the films and musicals depicting the King continue to be banned in Thailand.
Paris Opera Ballet at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay 21-23 June.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.