Robbins' revolution

September 05, 2004|By Deborah Jowitt

IT WAS A sobering moment. I had just finished showing a class of graduate students a video of Jerome Robbins' landmark first ballet, Fancy Free, and was explaining how much it had amazed and excited the audience attending its Ballet Theatre premiere in 1944.

Yes, I assured them, there had been ballets with American themes and subject matter before, but none that captured the spirit of the times quite so boldly. The three sailors who cartwheeled onto the stage looked like guys you'd see every day on the streets of New York during World War II - buddies to the end, even as they vied for the attention of a couple of friendly girls in the hours before their leave ended.

The worlds of Jerome Robbins are currently on view on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof, and his ballets will light up the New York City Ballet's winter season. Every week somewhere in the world, the curtain rises on a production of West Side Story.

Mr. Robbins and Fancy Free's composer, Leonard Bernstein, were both 25 back in 1944. What they had achieved, I told the class, was using everyday gestures and the rhythms and steps of social dance to make a ballet that looked and sounded spontaneous and natural.

The students demurred. The onstage behavior didn't look natural to them. They had entered the field of dance four decades after the radical experimenters of the 1960s had put really natural behavior into performance and called it dance. These young people, up on all the further ramifications of postmodernism, found the sailors' acting up stereotypical and tellingly exaggerated.

I realized that they were picking up on what New York City Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein once praised as Mr. Robbins' skill at "the artificed use of the apparently accidental."

And that, I think, is one of Jerome Robbins' great contributions to both the worlds of ballet and of musical comedy. He structured and refined recognizable feelings and behavior according to the rules of each form. Using the elegant, centuries-old vocabulary of classical ballet or shaping a number for a hit show, he could suggest - through his choreographic choices and his coaching - that the dancers were making everything up on the spot.

Take some of the best-known examples of his mature work on Broadway shows.

Those Jets sauntering down real New York sidewalks in the movie of West Side Story may at first look a bit out of place - more regulated than what you'd see on city pavements. But how skillfully Mr. Robbins, with the stunning support of Mr. Bernstein's music, constructs that opening number! The gang members' expressions of solidarity and their baiting of their rivals, the Sharks, build by increments into explosive, full-scale dancing without ever losing their wariness, their brashness or their mean-streets rhythms. Here's a musical comedy that begins with what's essentially an extended ballet; there's no singing and almost no talking, and by the time it ends, we know these kids, and believe in their world.

In directing and choreographing Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, Mr. Robbins needed to bring the life of a humble shtetl in turn-of-the-20th-century Russia in tune with Broadway's mission to entertain, without betraying either. He found ways to work against conventions: no theatrical makeup for the women, for instance, and no "ta-da!" endings to musical numbers. (The polished production currently running on Broadway might have dismayed him.)

Take the dance that follows Tevye's agreement to wed his eldest daughter to the butcher, Lazar Wolf. The original production built ingeniously from the moment the potentially dangerous local soldiers interrupt the sung Jewish toasts with their own congratulations. One holds out his hand and invites the dubious Tevye into an unfamiliar dance. Before the scene is done, Mr. Robbins has interwoven the Jewish community's folk steps with the flashier squat jumps and stamps of the gentiles, building intensity and tempo until members of both groups reel away or collapse in a heap, their differences forgotten. Is it real? No, it's a canny piece of showmanship. Is it "real"? Yes.

When Mr. Robbins left Broadway and returned to the New York City Ballet, where he had been George Balanchine's second-in-command between 1949 and 1956, his first contribution to the repertory was the ravishing 1969 Dances at a Gathering, set to Chopin piano pieces. Here he employed all the resources of the ballet vocabulary, as well as hints of Polish folk dance. The women wore pointed shoes; their legs swung high into the air. The men leaped and spun.

But while many ballets emphasize the dancers' technical accomplishments, Mr. Robbins' choreography downplayed them. You don't see performers prepare to turn or prepare to rise onto their toes. The elegant language of ballet becomes their language. And even though there's no story, he made us see them as members of a community living in Chopin's music as if it were a country of the heart.

If the above-mentioned works, and others by this late American master, continue to delight audiences, it is in part because the carefully designed "naturalness" of the parallel worlds that he created resonates with our own deepest feelings.

Deborah Jowitt is the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, and senior dance critic of The Village Voice.

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