Jerome Robbins helped define the way an entire generation of dancers moved during Broadway's golden age, piling up Tonys and Oscars with hits like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Pan, and Gypsy. He was equally influential in the highbrow world of ballet.
No matter the stage, Robbins colored his choreography with the dramas and gestures you'd find in the streets of postwar New York City. Think of the snapping in West Side Story. He made work about the everyman, and everybody loved it.
But like any genius, he was complicated. Threatened with being outed as a gay man, he named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, ratting out fellow artists who had ties to communism. The decision haunted him all his life, and he was never able to address it directly in his art.
The only thing larger than his impact on American dance may have been his reputation of being a notorious... "taskmaster," to use the diplomatic language of Peter Boal, the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and one of Robbins's former students.
"He could really be harsh and demanding," Boal said. "Sometimes dancers would unravel."
Robbins coached Boal though several roles during Boal's tenure as a dancer for the New York City Ballet, including a career-defining turn in Robbins's Opus 19/The Dreamer. Though other dancers struggled, Boal was comfortable with Robbins's ferocity. "He lashed out at people, but it wasn't to hurt or degrade them. He was trying to bring all of us to the highest level," Boal said.
And luckily, Robbins did have a weakness that his dancers could exploit when the tension in the room ramped up too high. "Our only solution was to find a dog," Boal said. "We'd keep dogs in the studio. We'd open the door, the dog would run in, and he'd melt like butter. He loved dogs. We did that a lot."
To kick off its 46th season, and to celebrate the centennial of this complicated, pup-loving genius, Pacific Northwest Ballet will mount seven shows over the course of two weekends as part of its Jerome Robbins Festival.
Every show includes Igor Stravinsky's Circus Polka, a fun trifle that features 48 little girl dancers plus a ringmaster. On one of the nights, Boal will play the lead role.
From there, Boal splits the festival into two programs, mostly to separate the Frederic Chopin numbers. Robbins was obsessed with Chopin, and he was forever creating dances to pair with his piano. This festival features four of those pieces.
Program A (which runs September 21, 22, and 29) balances the bravado of West Side Story with some of Robbins's more intimate, self-reflective, and self-reflexive numbers. If you really love the Broadway stuff and you want to go home humming some tunes, then that's the one you want to see. But if you want to dig a little deeper, Program B (which runs September 22, 27, 28, and 29) is the one you're after. Dances at a Gathering is Robbins's masterpiece, and The Concert reveals his comedic brilliance.
No matter which program you choose—and there's no reason you can't choose both—you won't be seeing any princes or swans or flashy castles. You'll be seeing dancers taking each other's hands, knocking back beers, and wrestling on the ground. Except, of course, they'll be doing it with studied grace and immaculate timing.