Jerome Robbins was a difficult man. His reputation as the greatest American choreographer of the mid-20th century— as the bald man in tennis shoes who commanded ballet and Broadway; who conceived, choreographed, and directed West Side Story; and was second only to George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet—is nearly eclipsed by his reputation for being a big jerk.
He was, by all accounts, a beast in rehearsal. He snarled and pushed and reduced his dancers to tears. Stephen Sondheim called him a sadist. Actor Eddie Albert called him a "shit." According to a 2001 essay by dance critic Joan Acocella, Robbins once backed downstage during a Broadway rehearsal, straight toward the orchestra pit. Nobody warned him. "Off he went," a dancer said. "He could have killed himself. I think he fell into the bass drums. Nobody went to his rescue, not for quite a while." He was also hated (and hated himself) for collaborating with the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s: When he was summoned to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he sang like a bird.
It's exciting to have his ghost in town.
In honor of Robbins's 90th birthday (and the 10-year anniversary of his death), Pacific Northwest Ballet has re-created three of his dances, and they look terrific. They're also a quick primer on Robbins's interests: young love, young men, jokes, storytelling, and the fraught marriage between high art and pop culture.
Fancy Free (1944) is by the Robbins of West Side Story, all about rambunctious boys and their sometimes-sinister libidos. The curtain rises on a bar in New York City. The painted backdrop is a grid of lights and colors, a bleary echo of Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie, while the exaggerated bar facade and leaning lamppost could've come from a Warner Bros. cartoon.
Three frisky sailors cartwheel onto the stage. They are pals, a trinity of young American manhood: the strapping, corn-fed hero (Casey Herd); the short comedian (Jonathan Porretta); and the wispy, pale sweetheart (Josh Spell). The boys drink beer and show off, jumping, kicking, and clicking their heels, in need of a lightning rod to focus their crazy energy. That lightning rod, of course, is sex. One woman, then a second, send the three sailors into spasms of lust and jealousy—and an explosive dance-off. The comedian rockets off the floor and lands in a bouncing split. The sweetheart does a charming little sway. The corn-fed hero wins with a jazzy ass-shake to Leonard Bernstein's jazzy score.
But Fancy Free is a comedy about male camaraderie, so the women can't last. Eventually, the boys fall to fighting. The women exit disgustedly, leaving the sailors to dust themselves off, toast one another, and run into the night, chasing another dame.
The evening's second dance, In the Night, is a more melancholy and self-consciously traditional ballet, made in 1970. By then, Robbins had won Tony awards, directed and choreographed Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof, grown a gray beard, and ratted out his colleagues to HUAC. He was also sick of Broadway and wanted to be a "real" artist. He returned to New York City Ballet to "bang on the gates of someone else's property," as Acocella put it. Robbins was a titan, but Balanchine was a god.
For In the Night, three couples float (mostly) through three love duets. They are nostalgic visions of tenderness, maturity, and passion by a man looking backward. Gone are the lightness and fizz of Fancy Free.
The best comes last. The Concert (or, the Perils of Everybody) is a 1956 collaboration with macabre cartoonist Edward Gorey.
A few illustrative facts about Gorey: He was obsessed with Edwardian England but grew up in Chicago where, in 1944, he painted his toenails green and walked barefoot down Michigan Avenue. He studied at Harvard, roomed with future poet Frank O'Hara, drew cartoons for the New Yorker, and was a devotee of NYCB. He wrote and illustrated ballet books, including The Lavender Leotard, or Going a Lot to the New York City Ballet and The Gilded Bat, about a young ballet sensation who dances roles like "the enraged butterfly" and dies in an airplane crash.
A series of jokes for 21 dancers, The Concert concerns an audience's bizarre daydreams at a piano recital. Gorey designed the ballet in lavender and black, and the choreography is all for him: a severed hand, fancy hats, a murder, a suicide, a nerdy boy in a sweater-vest and glasses, a swooning lady, an awkward ballerina, enraged butterflies, and a procession of dancers carrying black umbrellas, looking very like a New Yorker cartoon. In one sequence, men lug around ballerinas, frozen in awkward positions. The men stack and arrange them and then, with a piano flourish, the ballerinas sweep into graceful position.
The joke pits the artifice of mannequins against the artifice of traditional ballet. It is Robbins at his funniest, and it's too bad that this 52-year-old ballet is only now having its Seattle premiere.
Since 1977, when Kent Stowell and Francia Russell took over, PNB has been an outpost for the Balanchine legacy, a kind of NYCB West. But Stowell and Russell virtually ignored Jerome Robbins, performing only two of his ballets in 28 years.
Since Peter Boal took over PNB in 2005, he has staged four Robbins ballets and will add two more ("West Side Story Suite" and the famous "Dances at a Gathering") to the repertoire next season. Boal has been gently prodding PNB out of its fustiness with more modern choreographers and sexy print ads. All Robbins is a welcome coup from that admirable campaign, introducing Seattle to the other—more populist and comical, but no less important—genius of New York City Ballet.