Magazine | September 10, 2018, Issue

Jerome Robbins at 100

The American Ballet Theatre performing Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free at Covent Garden in 1946 (Baron/Getty Images)

What is the real subject of Jerome Robbins’s 1944 ballet Fancy Free? The dance depicts three sailors carousing during shore leave in the next-to-last year of World War II, but Robbins has nothing to say about the miseries of combat. And, since we see the sailors only in and around a big-city bar, the choreographer concerns himself not at all with the drudgeries of life in uniform.

Instead, Fancy Free — like François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses or Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” — is a meditation on the mostly wholesome joys of young manhood at midcentury: telling tall tales, swigging glasses of beer, taking note of female passers-by.

In a sense, the material had all the makings of a memorable ballet. More than most art forms, dance is the dominion of the young. Artists in other fields have the capacity to improve over time: As they age, writers can become more sagacious, painters more adventuresome, and conductors more decisive. By contrast, dancers are practicing an art form that calls for athleticism on a par with that of a professional ball player or a decathlete. And who among us is as limber or lithe at age 40 as at age 20?

Given that dance companies are stocked with young talent, it is no surprise, then, that so many of the great ballets — including, but not limited to, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and Prodigal Son — concern themselves with characters in the springtime of their lives; ballets that have at their center an elderly figure, such as George Balanchine’s version of Don Quixote, are the exception to the rule.

Even so, few contemporary creators of dance were as attentive to the ecstatic energy of youth as Jerome Robbins, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. Born in New York in 1918, Robbins enjoyed a career expansive enough to encompass a multi-decade appointment as the associate artistic director of New York City Ballet, where he created ballets with both classical roots and modern pretensions, as well as a long-term involvement on Broadway, where his work included choreographing or directing such shows as Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, Mother Courage and Her Children, and Fiddler on the Roof. He picked up five Tony Awards in the process.

Robbins’s legacy, then, cannot be whittled down to a single theme or style, but time and again, he returned to the subject of Fancy Free: To invoke the title of a 1944 Val Lewton film, let’s call that subject “Youth Runs Wild.” As Robbins biographer Deborah Jowitt wrote, “He cherished youth onstage . . . and he had a gift for creating an illusion of innocence.” To prove her point, Jowitt quotes lines from a poem Robbins penned as a child: “Still dreams of youth I will keep in my head / Till my heart stops beating & until I am dead.” And so he did.

Yet it was happenstance that guided the development of Fancy Free. Robbins — at the time a nascent choreographer whose day job was dancing with the company that preceded the American Ballet Theatre — viewed Paul Cadmus’s painting The Fleet’s In! The lively, slightly caricatured work presents a group of roughhousing, presumably soused sailors mingling with the locals while on shore leave. “I thought, ‘No, this is too raunchy for me,’ but it gave me the idea of working with sailors,” Robbins said in an interview in the 2009 documentary Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. “I wrote a ballet that was about two of my best friends and myself in the company. We palled around together.”

The pleasures of palling around would emerge with ferocity in Fancy Free, the first performance of which was presented at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on April 18, 1944. While loitering outside the bar, the sailors whirl, jump, and unfurl sticks of gum in unison, but they also joust with each other. One sailor is jostled between his two comrades, while another is kicked in the derriere, and all three take deep, emphatic breaths, inhaling the air like he-men engaged in one-upmanship. The sailors’ clean white uniforms stand out like shooting stars in the dark cityscape scenery by Oliver Smith.

Robbins’s women are no timid creatures, either. When the sailors run into a winsome dame in a yellow skirt, they aggressively seek her attention — encircling her with athletic dance moves, playfully plucking at her red purse — but she stands her ground, kicking and slapping back. Yet Robbins illustrates how quickly antagonism can turn to affection: At the end of the quasi-romantic mêlée, the woman frees her wrist from the grip of one of the sailors, dramatically returns the purse to her shoulder, and marches offstage. Chastened, two sailors race to follow her; was it her idea all along to ensnare them? The third sailor remains onstage, but he is soon paired with a second woman, who trots in with the high steps of a mare, or a spider. He taps her shoulder and starts babbling, an effect indicated by the sudden rush of clanging music by Leonard Bernstein (the composer of the memorable score).

Fancy Free was considered a triumph upon its premiere — Time called the ballet “as lusty a piece of knockabout vaudeville as could be found in the heyday of B. F. Keith” — and in the years that followed, Robbins’s work certainly evolved, but it never lost its vim and vigor. In fact, for the successor to Fancy Free, the choreographer went backwards in time: The young-adult sailors of Fancy Free turned into the frolicking adolescents (danced, of course, by adults) of Interplay. The 1945 ballet boasted chirpy, hand-clapping, ponytail-tossing choreography. Writing about a revival of the ballet in 2002, New York Times critic Jack Anderson called it “unmistakably youthful in spirit,” noting that some passages were modeled on children’s games, including “follow the leader, leapfrog and London Bridge.” It’s certainly a long way from Marius Petipa.

Like Benjamin Button, Robbins went still farther back into time in 1954 — to the undying childhood of J. M. Barrie, whose play Peter Pan; or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up had been turned into a musical with Mary Martin in the title role. Robbins was tasked with choreographing, staging, and directing a show that featured the contributions of no fewer than five veterans of musical theater: lyricists Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Carolyn Leigh, as well as composers Mark Charlap and Jule Styne. Despite the constellation of talent, it is tempting to attribute the show’s guileless wonderment — and its unambiguously stated admonition  to never grow up — to Robbins’s guidance.

When watching a recording of the 1955 NBC broadcast, who could fail to be charmed by the altogether enchanting opening, in which the Darling children adorn themselves in their parents’ outsize clothes and imitate the movements of figurines emerging from a cuckoo clock? Or by Martin’s burying her head in the black fabric meant to represent her shadow, or adopting her famously cocksure stance — head raised, fists clenched — while singing “I’ve Gotta Crow”? Or the alternately roiling and controlled dance numbers given to the Indians, led by Sondra Lee’s Tiger Lily? If we allow for the differences between early-20th-century England — and Neverland — and 1940s-era New York, the boisterous, intuitive movement in Peter Pan is not so far from that of the sailors in Fancy Free; Martin’s Peter Pan is closer to Huck Finn than to an English lad.

George Balanchine, the co-founder and longtime artistic director of New York City Ballet, frequently found raw material for ballets in Americana; one dance (Western Symphony) evoked the saloons of the Old West, while another (Square Dance) called to mind an old-school country dance. Yet the Russian-born Balanchine had a cautious, respectful approach to such iconography; he was a foreigner observing a culture that was not his. By contrast, his homegrown colleague felt the freedom to let loose, even going so far as to deposit the scenario and characters of Romeo and Juliet (another tale of sympathetic youth!) in modern-day New York. In 1957’s West Side Story — like Peter Pan, choreographed, directed, and staged by Robbins — performers projected a mixture of grit and grace. In the opening number of the 1961 film version (co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise), gang members stride with menace beside a graffiti-laden wall, but then — like the sailors who alternate roughhousing with pirouettes — individual dancers fall out of the horde to pose on one leg. 

Not every Robbins creation was as rangy or real, but he could often be counted on to cut through the shopworn conventions of classical ballet. When he took a fresh crack at Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun in 1953 for New York City Ballet, the costumes meant to evoke fauns and nymphs were jettisoned; instead, Robbins opted for a ballet that would unfold in a modern dance studio occupied by a male dancer and a ballerina, each wearing rehearsal gear. The ballet’s newfound simplicity is clarifying, intoxicating.

Among choreographers, Robbins was unusual in making use of mass media to bring his work to the public. To appreciate one of his dances or shows, you did not need to have an address in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. You needed only a ticket to the local movie palace to see the film versions of On the Town (the basis of which was Fancy Free) or West Side Story, or a TV set and rabbit ears to pick up the transmission of Peter Pan. Yet Robbins’s openness to pop culture also means his legacy is susceptible to revision. In 2014, NBC broadcast a la­mentable “live” version of Peter Pan, the choreography to which was by Rob Ashford, not Robbins. And there is talk that Steven Spielberg will soon direct a remake of West Side Story; whether Robbins’s steps and finger-snaps will remain is unknown.

Yet to spend time in the company of the original versions of Robbins’s shows — or to see a new production of one of his ballets — is to be reminded of how little reinvention they require. To the contrary, it is impossible to imagine that Fancy Free, Peter Pan, or West Side Story are the works of someone who would this year be a century old. The man who made sailors dance and Peter Pan soar will always remain footloose and fancy-free — and never quite grown-up.

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of the book Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

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