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From Stravinsky to the Sharks -Jerome Robbins :His Life, His Theatre, His Dance.
By Nicholas Fox Weber

Nicholas Fox Weber, the author of ''Patron Saints'' and ''Balthus: A Biography,'' is writing a biography of Le Corbusier.

Jerome Robbins :His Life, His Theatre, His Dance.
By Deborah Jowitt.
Illustrated. 619 pp.
Simon & Schuster. $40.

WHEN Jerry Rabinowitz was 16 years old, he got an A+ for an essay, ''My Selves,'' written for English class in Weehawken, N.J. The future Jerome Robbins saw his face in the mirror as a mask. Beneath it lurked another ''mask of malignant capability'' -- a phrase so nuanced that it alone would have warranted the highest mark. Subsequent layers of his character appear in dizzying sequence, ''spreading over the mirror, the walls, the rooms, the earth. . . . They are all my selves!'' This revelation, with which Deborah Jowitt opens her fascinating biography of the innovative director of Broadway musicals and choreographer of masterpieces for the New York City Ballet, conjures one of the risky, complex, yet cohesive ballets Robbins staged later in life. Robbins wore masks because he was not comfortable with his real self -- his religion even more than his sexuality: ''I didn't want to be a Jew. I didn't want to be like my father, the Jew -- or any of his friends, those Jews.'' Even when he was working for the Yiddish theater as a young man, his stage names included Robin Gerald, Gerald Robbins, Gerald Robins and Jerry Robyns.

Robbins came from a remarkable immigrant family that had fled pogroms and endured countless hardships in the United States and put a relentless emphasis on its children's education. As a young man, he returned with his mother to his grandparents' shtetl; the visit intensified his obsession with his roots, both their attraction and the wish to repudiate them. In 1936, when he was 18, Robbins's sister prevailed over their father to allow Jerry to audition, in swim trunks and T-shirt, at the Dance Center on West 54th Street. At that hotbed of leftist politics, he observed the husband-and-wife team of Senia Gluck-Sandor and Felicia Sorel, and discovered the magic of dance. Jowitt evokes this instant intoxication in part by judiciously quoting Robbins's own words: ''Sorel he saw as a cool, intense foil to Sandor's wildness. 'Her lids never seemed to raise to make a visual connection with her partners, but connected she was. She used her hands in an archaic way, fingers together, thumbs separated and crooked back toward the hand at the last joint.' Robbins began to think about hands. He saw also how Sandor gained power by '[using]' space as if it were a thick volume.' '' Body movement had miraculous expressive possibilities.

Robbins's eventual success in bringing the power and artistry of classical ballet into the arena of musical theater was based in that early alertness. In 1958, after seeing ''West Side Story,'' which Robbins directed and choreographed in the same period as he was working with City Ballet, the astute English critic Kenneth Tynan observed that Robbins ''projects the show as a rampaging ballet, with bodies flying from the air as if shot from guns, leaping, shrieking and somersaulting.'' That unique application of traditional dance technique to the Broadway stage had its origins in the German Expressionist style he observed at the Dance Center.

Dance and entertainment were intertwined with politics. In 1939, when Robbins worked with Danny Kaye, Carol Channing and Imogene Coca at Tamiment, a resort in the Poconos, he invented a ballet based on the Spanish Civil War; in 1940, he created ''Harlem Incident.'' But unlike most men his age, he did not join the Army. Appearing before the draft board in 1942 and asked if he had ever had a homosexual experience, he answered affirmatively. When the examiner inquired when was his most recent such encounter, he replied, ''Last night.'' Robbins was classified 4F, disqualified from soldierdom because of ''constitutional psychopathetic inferiority.''

In 1942, the 23-year-old Robbins danced to Stravinsky's lively music in Mikhail Fokine's ''Petrouchka.'' Robert Lawrence of The New York Herald Tribune wrote, ''The drooping limbs, frustrated mask, the lightning motility that alternated with his shambling gait made this an overwhelming portrayal.'' Edwin Denby observed that in ''Helen of Troy'' Robbins demonstrated ''that a god should be just like someone you see any day on the street.'' With these citations, Jowitt reveals the magnitude of her subject's achievement. Dance becomes the means through which physical motion and facial dexterity communicate tragedy, exhilaration, humor, longing and breathtaking victory in rapid succession.

Simultaneously with his mastery of ballet, Robbins emerged as a dancer on Broadway in 1943-44, playing a hip-swinging sailor in ''Fancy Free,'' which he choreographed to music by Leonard Bernstein. The afternoon following the premiere, Robbins wrote that whereas the previous day he had been ''a schnook from Weehawken'' to whom no one would give the time of day, that morning he had been called by 12 producers to choreograph their shows. His successes of the next few years would include ''On the Town,'' which also had Bernstein's music, ''High Button Shoes'' and the engaging ''Call Me Madam,'' with Ethel Merman.

Jowitt, a dance critic at The Village Voice, depends too much on other critical voices and too little on her own authority. Her exhaustive text is often more a scrapbook than a probing narrative; she would have done better to go deeper beneath the surface of Robbins's professional metamorphosis and complex personal relationships than to quote other critics endlessly. What do we really learn about Jerome Robbins by knowing that Pauline Kael deemed ''West Side Story'' ''pretentious'' (''How can so many critics have fallen for this frenzied hokum?''), while she considered ''Fiddler on the Roof'' ''the most powerful movie musical ever created''? Did Kael provide illuminating reasons or simply enjoy her own swagger? Jowitt gives disproportionate importance to the accepted wisdom and popularity ratings without adequately penetrating the material.

She does, however, trenchantly reveal Robbins's relationship with his own beliefs. Between 1943 and 1947 he was a member of the Communist Party. As for many American Communists, the aftereffects of that participation were more significant than the party itself. When Robbins was scheduled to appear on Ed Sullivan's television show in 1950, its sponsor, the Ford Motor Company, forced him to cancel. Robbins went to the F.B.I. to clear his name; the tactic failed, and Ed Sullivan publicly urged the House Un-American Activities Committee to subpoena Robbins, who fled to Paris.

His life went on in its complicated way. He was engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Nora Kaye, but in France he had an affair with a young male dancer, Buzz Miller. This was followed by ''a three-week fling with composer Ned Rorem'' (again, one wishes Jowitt had gone beyond the recitation of dates and places and amplified the connection between these creative giants). Robbins then mustered the courage to return to New York, where in 1951 he choreographed, for City Ballet, ''The Pied Piper,'' to Aaron Copland's clarinet concerto; on Broadway, he created the dances for ''The King and I.'' In 1952, he directed ''Two's Company,'' a revue starring Bette Davis, with music by Vernon Duke and words by such wits as Peter de Vries and Ogden Nash. The next year, he choreographed the exquisite ''Afternoon of a Faun,'' a new version of Nijinsky's 1912 ballet set to Debussy's music, and, also at City Ballet, ''Fanfare,'' set to Benjamin Britten's ''Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.'' But he was having nightmares in which the F.B.I. came calling -- agonizing fantasies based in reality. The same year as these last three stage triumphs, he was summoned to appear in a public hearing before HUAC.

Robbins named the person who had recruited him into the Communist Party, and also gave the names of various actors, playwrights and critics who were party members. Committee members thanked him for his cooperation; as Jowitt writes, one of them, Gordon Scherer, said he ''was going to see 'The King and I' that very night and would now appreciate it all the more.'' In this instance, Jowitt does well by elucidating the facts without commentary. None is needed. This horrific information, imparted with effective restraint, becomes the turning point of the narrative -- as it was of Robbins's life.

Years after giving those names, Robbins wrote: ''It was my homosexuality I was afraid would be exposed I thought. It was my once having been a Communist that I was afraid would be exposed. None of these. I was & have been -- & still have terrible pangs of terror when I feel that my career, work, veneer of accomplishments would be taken away (by HUAC, or by critics) that I panicked & crumbled & returned to that primitive state of terror -- the facade of Jerry Robbins would be cracked open, and behind everyone would finally see Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz.'' What he had sensed of himself at 16 had been borne out.

He subsequently choreographed and often directed an amazing series of Broadway shows -- ''Peter Pan'' (1954), ''Bells Are Ringing'' (1956), ''West Side Story'' (1957), ''Gypsy'' (1959), ''Funny Girl'' and ''Fiddler on the Roof'' (both 1964). And his collaboration with George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein and the New York City Ballet proved that Robbins could straddle two artistic worlds and excel in both.

But the former Jerry Rabinowitz was a desperate man. When he won two Academy Awards for the film of ''West Side Story,'' he put the Oscars in his basement and declared that the coveted statuettes had ''no faces, no fingers . . . no nothing. . . . They're bland like Hollywood, they're gold and glued over.'' Jowitt makes clear that Robbins did not think much more highly of himself.

He lacked the personal courage he evinced in his art. When, in appreciation for Robbins having been a friendly witness, Ed Sullivan in 1959 publicly forgave him for his Communism, Robbins encouraged the performance of his work on Sullivan's show and took pride in his standing ovation on national television following his exoneration. He accepted the kudos but was tortured. In 1975, when the unique qualities of his work were wowing the public at City Ballet, he spent three weeks at McLean Hospital to adjust to the recommended dosage of the antidepressant Elavil that his psychiatrists hoped would lift him from despair; he described himself there as ''a Jewish ex-commie fag who had to go into a mental hospital.''

All of that self-loathing and confusion reaches an apogee in ''The Poppa Piece,'' a mיlange of dance and theater that Robbins developed for decades and reconceived in 1991-92. Jowitt's synopsis is compelling: ''Robbins . . . contrasted a scene in the Turkish baths his father frequented, and to which he had once dragged his reluctant son, with a WASP locker room scene full of jock revelry and subliminal homoeroticism. . . . In the first jocular scene, a group of chatty old men joke with the cringing 'boychik' that Poppa proudly introduces, pinching his cheeks, checking the size of his penis, singing and dancing around him. The steam emerges from a vat of soup with huge matzoh balls that the men fling about.'' Then there's a lot of towel-snapping with the boy, Jake (the autobiographical Robbins), gazing at the crotches of the athletes ''looking like golden gods,'' in ''what's now a gas chamber'' but is also ''a vision of a promised land both Gentile and gay.''

In the end, Jake faces HUAC -- with his father present at the trial. In one draft of ''The Poppa Piece,'' ''the committee speaks as a threatening chorus.'' Responding almost verbatim with Jerome Robbins's answers to the committee decades earlier, Jake ''wears a clown suit that he removes in the middle of the proceedings. . . . And with his back to the wall, he points to his father and says to the committee, 'Take him!' ''

Jerome Robbins never finished ''The Poppa Piece.'' In 1992, six years before he died, he wrote, ''Maybe I can't -- will never find a satisfying release from the guilt of it all.'' He danced like an angel and brought thrills to the multitudes worldwide, but he could not conquer his own demons.

Contact :
Christopher Pennington
Jerome Robbins Foundation
18 West 21st Street, 6th Floor
New York, New York 10010
Tel.: (212) 367-8956
Fax: (212) 367-8966
Email: pennington@jeromerobbins.org  



Source: The New York Times newspaper

Related Links:

  • Master of dance stepped lively
  • J.R. Website
  • Get the book
  • Chapter 6: Choreographer on the Town
  • Fiddler Crabs
  • Dance was his genius

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