Robbins, master of ballet, Broadway

August 03, 1998

The New York Times said in an editorial on Friday:

Lights dimmed for a moment last night on Broadway, the theater world's way of honoring Jerome Robbins, one of the century's great choreographers. Robbins, who died in New York City on Wednesday at age 79, left his legendary imprint on every Broadway show he touched, on every ballet he crafted and on audiences who felt his untethered genius behind the athletic rumble in "West Side Story" or in "Watermill," a ballet executed with such exacting slowness that George Balanchine described it as being without time.

Known as a tough, even tyrannical artist, Robbins made the same demands of himself, assuring that each dance form pushed into new creative territory. "I am a perfectionist," he once explained with a touch of indignation about such pedestrian criticism. "I wear that badge proudly. I think that's what art is about. . . ."

For most Americans, Jerome Robbins was a familiar name on the playbill, as choreographer or director of such Broadway classics as "Gypsy," "Peter Pan," "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Pajama Game" and "The King and I," to name only a few. His most famous musical, "West Side Story," the movie version of which won him two Oscars, and his first musical, "On the Town," about three sailors on leave in New York, were both done with Leonard Bernstein.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the book and lyrics for "On the Town," recalled Thursday how the Robbins dance vernacular was so vast that he never seemed to repeat himself. The humor was startling or subtle, never descending to vaudeville, they said.

As Green explained, "Things that might at first seem ordinary, he made it seem that you had never seen them before."

For some of his colleagues, his only misstep was an appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities when he named eight colleagues in a local Communist Party rather than risk being blacklisted on Broadway. That act stirred great controversy among those in the arts community, where many saw his cooperation with the committee as unforgivable.

Over his 79 years, with his work on Broadway and his last ballet in 1997 set to Bach concertos, Robbins took millions of people to a new place, as he once put it, a world "where things are not named."

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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