Jerome Robbins, dancing with perfection The renowned choreographer who died last month at 79 is remembered as an extraordinary artist - and a flawed individual


August 09, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

By the time I began to write about dance in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-'80s, Jerome Robbins, always aloof, had reached the age and eminence that he didn't need to talk to dance critics on the Other Coast, as they call it in New York.

So I never met him, though I did get a quote once, in writing, via his agent, when "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" stopped in San Francisco on its national tour.

But I cherish my two Robbins sightings, which say something about the choreographer that I doubt he would have said about himself in words, if words we had exchanged.

Robbins, who died last month at the age of 79, was the all-American genius of dance. Equally at home in ballet and on Broadway, he united them in the immortal "West Side Story" (1957), a jazz ballet in the form of a musical. His enormous output also comprised 15 other Broadway musicals (including "Fiddler on the Roof") and 66 ballets set to music from Bach to Bernstein.

On a trip to Paris in 1990, I got tickets to the Paris Opera Ballet on a night that featured an all-Robbins program. After the company had presented "Glass Pieces" and "In G Major" and was taking its bows, a short, spry fellow in jeans, with a crisp white beard and a bald head, came on the stage and took a brief bow.

The audience didn't catch on, because the applause stayed at the same level, but I was delighted. It was Robbins.

But what was he doing there? It wasn't opening night or closing night or his birthday. This was just a performance in the middle of the season.

All I could think was that he was checking up, making sure the performance was polished and clean, hadn't gotten inexact or just plain sloppy. (And with the Paris Opera Ballet, notoriously unionized and complacent, this may have been necessary.)

"He gave absolutely 100 percent if not 150 percent of himself, and expected that of the people who worked with him," says Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco Ballet.

Tomasson created the central roles in two Robbins ballets, "Goldberg Variations" (1971) and "Dybbuk Variations" (1974), and inherited roles in half a dozen others, with the result that San Francisco has 10 Robbins ballets in its repertory, more than any company except the New York City Ballet.

"I feel fortunate that he had that trust in me," Tomasson says.

This past January, I took the train up to New York and caught a Saturday matinee of the New York City Ballet. The program contained Robbins' "A Suite of Dances," which featured Damian Woetzel and an onstage cellist playing Bach.

After intermission, down at the end of my row by the door, I noticed the cellist taking a house seat to watch the rest of the program.

Then through the door came that short, spry fellow with a crisp white beard, wrapped in an enormous overcoat, gloves and a furry Russian cap. He talked to the cellist, pointing to her corner of the stage, which had been rather dark.

It was clear that he was going to request a lighting adjustment, emphasizing that she (and her music) was the partner, not the accompanist, of Woetzel and his dancing.

"He exercised very tight control over his works, and it was nothing unusual that he would show up unexpectedly" to have a look at them, Tomasson said. "He was very strict, and not everyone could get his works that had wanted them. For this company to dance a Robbins ballet is an honor."

Robbins was a brilliant, serious choreographer with a notable ear. "Dances at a Gathering" and "In the Night," two series of duets to Chopin nocturnes, waltzes and mazurkas, are exquisite explorations of both relationships and music. "Goldberg" is as intellectually complex and curious as Bach's 30 meditations on the lullaby fragment he chose for the theme.

The seaside romp Robbins devised for the Ravel piano concerto ("In G Major") fits its buoyant exuberance with the closeness and intimacy of a swimsuit, and the slow movement, a molten pas de deux, is like breakers at low tide, smashing creamily in slow motion on the sands.

He was also enormously funny. If "The Concert" is being performed within a hundred-mile radius, go see it. Nothing is so drippy as his joke at the expense of Chopin's "Raindrop Prelude," nothing so silly as the millinery try-on session to the A major mazurka; and no one, ever, has captured the audience at a piano recital, from hummers to zealots to the man whose wife has dragged him away from the baseball game, as this wonderful ballet.

"You had the feeling he was portraying people in his ballets," Tomasson says. "Even those that did not have a story, like 'Dances at a Gathering,' you felt it was about a community of people. [Anyone] would be able to identify with the characters, even in nonstory roles."

I remember with what a shock I read, in Joan Peyser's nasty biography of Leonard Bernstein, which "outed" a lot more than his homosexuality, that Robbins had supplied the names of eight friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee at its hearings in 1953.

It was as though I'd walked around to the back of a great sculpture and found not just a crack but a patch of rot, riddled with maggots.

The New York Times obituary recounted the HUAC incident, and so did the editorial in the Times that marked Robbins' passing.

In neither case was the mention prominent, but it wasn't glossed over either, and I'm glad.

It reminds us that the greatest of artists may not be the best of people; that even they, so deeply attuned to the human spirit, have their own demons and their own sins to contend with. You could call it a kind of high-toned hypocrisy, I suppose.

But I think this ugliness - like Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism - makes the art of Jerome Robbins all the more glorious, because of what he fought to overcome in creating it.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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