Desperate Dancing

An indispensable new biography of Broadway legend Jerome Robbins reevaluates his life and work.

“Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theatre, His Dance” by Deborah Jowitt.

By Debra Cash

At 21, Jerome Robbins knew how he wanted to spend his life: “My rising eating loving sleeping shall all be affected by my faith,” he wrote to himself in his diary. “I shall be firm and straight and even cruel to be faithful. I SHALL DANCE.” What he didn’t know was who he wanted to be.

Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt’s indispensable new critical biography “Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theatre, His Dance” recounts how, over the next six decades, Robbins fulfilled this mission statement, though his dedication to creativity apparently came at great personal cost. With unprecedented access to boxes of letters, journals, contracts, letters to his lawyers, production notes, and programs (the man was a pack rat), Jowitt makes a compelling case that in his work for Broadway and the ballet stage, Robbins rose far above his neuroses.

Robbins died in 1998, two months short of his 80th birthday. Jowitt’s isn’t the first book about Robbins to appear since, and it won’t be the last. Amanda Vaill’s study, based on the same raw material from the Robbins estate, is expected in the fall of 2005. In 2001, Greg Lawrence, who is married to and coauthored the autobiography of ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, published “Dance with Demons.” The preface, quoting New York City Ballet soloist Mel Tomlinson, says it all. “If I go to hell, I will not be afraid of the devil. Because I have worked with Jerome Robbins.”

Yes, many dancers openly despised him and others feared working with him. In Jowitt’s book, scenic designer Beverly Emmons points out that, when something in the theatre was going wrong, “Jerry looked around for someone to kill.” His legendary rages (shredding hand-embroidered costumes with scissors, making performers cry during rehearsals) are easy to sensationalize. Jowitt takes a more nuanced tack. “As I read his oeuvre laid out before me, I found so much that was witty, tender, so many people who loved him,” she reflected in a recent conversation. As she slogged through pages of self-hatred in his journals, Jowitt wanted to scold the much psychoanalyzed Robbins, “Jerry, snap out of it,” only to find him telling himself the same thing a few pages, a few days later.

Robbins’ life would have made a great, if unruly, Broadway show. Even he knew that. Imagine the sequences. Act One: a Weehauwken, New Jersey boyhood revolving around a demanding mother who marked up a groveling letter of apology from her young son with “more appropriate word usage,” an ineffectual Poppa, and a talented older sister who took dancing lessons. Act Two: summers at Tamiment, a camp in the Poconos, where Robbins developed sketches and revues with a glittering cadre of unknown contemporaries, including Carol Channing, Danny Kaye, and Imogene Coca. He was classified 4F during World War II after answering yes to the army’s question “have you ever had a homosexual experience?” When asked to specify the “date of his last such encounter” he forthrightly replied, “last night.”

Act Three: the career takes off. Robbins contributes to path-breaking collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, such as the ballet “Fancy Free,” and the musicals “On the Town,” and ultimately “West Side Story,” first envisioned as a Romeo and Juliet story about Jews and Catholics on New York’s East side. An almost unbroken string of Broadway hits followed: “The King and I,” “Gypsy,” “Peter Pan,” “Fiddler on the Roof.” There were also seventy ballets, many of which have never gone out of repertory, including “The Cage,” “Dances at a Gathering,” and “Afternoon of a Faun.” The latter is Nijinsky’s ballet rethought as a meditation on two young dancers, which Jowitt describes beautifully, writing that “they look into [the mirror] to see what they might be, at how they transform themselves through the rituals of ballet. We see through the mirror into their desires.”

Act Four: Robbins commits an almost incomprehensible act of betrayal, naming names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Jowitt marshals the different reasons he gave for ratting out eight colleagues who had attended meetings during the three years he was a member of the Communist party. Robbins was desperately insecure about his life’s work: it was a career, he wrote later, written in “invisible ink.” He feared that, his homosexuality made public (this was 1953), he would be sent back to the small-town, small-minded Jewish immigrant life he had escaped. Deep in his psyche, Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz was afraid he would be forced to return to his father and the Comfort Corset Factory.

Jowitt went through boxes of uncatalogued material, but her book doesn’t rely on insider revelations. She is almost reticent about Robbins’ bisexuality and fetishes (go read about those in Lawrence’s book if you are curious) and doesn’t get involved with ancient squabbles between theatre cliques. What she does particularly well is turn random notes into hard historical insights. For instance, Jowitt looks at the verbs and “allusions to emotional states that can be physicalized” that Robbins underlined in the Auden poem he used as the basis for his “Age of Anxiety” ballet, phrases like “unattached as a tumbleweed.”

When Jowitt gets down to the meat of the choreography or direction, she is clear eyed and plain spoken. Here’s her take on the opening vision of the Jets in “West Side Story”: “As the snaps accumulate, the audience understands not just the guys’ nothing-to-do, looking-for-trouble mood but their solidarity. … By the time you notice that the two groups of boys are dancing, you’ve understood the restless animosity that powers the movement, and it becomes as interesting as the steps.”

Jowitt’s decision to tell Robbins’ story chronologically creates problems. She’s smart about the differences between Robbins’ and Balanchine’s styles. But her point that “[Robbins] didn’t want the mechanics to show, no matter how difficult, whereas Balanchine often wanted to reveal what could be done, and how, without compromising his profound musicality” does not come until she discusses Robbins’ mature work. This important insight, among others, comes too late in the book.

Some of her perceptions are correctives to common knowledge. She argues that Robbins’ insistence that each actor or dancer devise a psychological “back story” was derived not only from his stint at the Actors Studio, but from watching British choreographer Anthony Tudor. She also understands how Robbins responded to the other directors and choreographers of his day, and explains his reverence for the calm clarity and endless inventiveness of George Balanchine, with whom he shared a tiny office. Critics mattered to him. She digests their comments, from “fan” writers like Walter Terry to the erudite Kenneth Tynan and Edwin Denby, whose writing helped Robbins’ audiences to see his work more clearly.

Taking in page after page of faithfully described numbers from long-gone shows, a reader yearns to click on a video hypertext link and watch the production numbers over Jowitt’s shoulder. You could do worse than read Jowitt’s book along with “Jerome Robbins, That Broadway Man, That Ballet Man,” by Christine Conrad, a screenwriter who was Robbins’ girlfriend when he was 48 and she was just 24. Conrad was interviewed in depth for Jowitt’s book, but this scrapbook provides larger and full color reprints of some of the images in Jowitt’s volume. The facsimile pages from Robbins’ journals — overlapping collages of ticket stubs, pressed flowers, tiny art reproductions, stamps, and beachscapes painted in acutely rendered watercolors — are especially lovely. The originals are kept under lock and key at the New York Public Library whose dance film archive Robbins underwrote by granting the institution a portion of his royalties from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

During the many years he attempted an autobiographical work, Robbins questioned why he continued to mine such painful personal material. In Conrad’s book, a journal entry from August, 1984 is written out with line breaks like a poem. “To take my name again,” he writes, “to vomit up my rage and pain/to absolve it/to come to some peace about it/take my name again.”

In this thoughtful reevaluation of Robbins’ life and his hard-won accomplishments, Jowitt sees Robbins as he saw himself, permitting him to name himself. The sadness of “Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theatre, His Dance” is that it reveals Jerome Robbins to be his own most damning critic.

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