Ask a dancer who Jerome Robbins was and you’ll receive a multitude of answers: a perfectionist, a showman, a stylist and an outsider — along with a few words that are unprintable in this newspaper.
But no matter what one thinks or feels about Robbins, he was undoubtedly one thing above all else — a hit maker.
Nearly everything he churned out in his 40-year choreographic career, for either Broadway (“West Side Story” and “A King and I”) or New York City Ballet (works such as “Fancy Free” and “Glass Pieces”), was undeniably appealing to the masses. Robbins was the people’s choreographer and this summer at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, his legacy will be honored with a string of his winners.
New York City Ballet will dedicate its three-week season, opening Tuesday, to its late associate artistic director and ballet master. The stay, marking the dancemaker’s 90th birthday, will showcase a dozen of Robbins’ ballets. Making the event extra special is that two of the 12, “Four Bagatelles,” to music by Beethoven, and “Moves,” danced in silence, are making their SPAC premieres decades after their creations.
Range of genius
The breadth of his genius will be expressed in his musical works, such as “Goldberg Variations,” “Brahms/Handel” and “Interplay” as well as his theatrical ones like “Afternoon of a Faun,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “West Side Story Suite” and “The Concert.” Of course, the season will feature its standard George Balanchine fare (nine ballets) and two new works, one by Peter Martins and one from the recently departed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. But for those who love Robbins, this is a must-see season.
New York City Ballet
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Spa State Park, routes 9 and 50, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 8 p.m. July 8 to 26 with 2 p.m. matinees on Thursday and Saturday
HOW MUCH: $72.50 to $26 inside and $18 on the lawn for evenings and $27.50 inside and $10 on the lawn for matinees. Free on the lawn for children for all dance performances.
MORE INFO: 587-3330 or www.spac.org
For the dancers, past and present, who were hand-picked by Robbins, this retrospective brings back memories of working with the man. And while all remember him a little differently, they agree on one point — his striving for perfection made them better dancers.
“Early on, he intimidated me,” said principal Philip Neal, who joined the company in 1987. “He shook me up. When I was asked to the first rehearsal, I was honored. But I stood in the back of the room and watched the other dancers. I was expected to watch and learn. And then occasionally, someone could not dance and Jerry would throw me in.”
Robbins, Neal said, took a personal interest in him. When Neal couldn’t lift a ballerina, Robbins got him a trainer to strengthen his upper body. And then he would show up to watch him dance other ballets, like Balanchine’s “Mozartiana,” to gauge Neal’s growth.
“He was hands-on with me early on in my career,” said Neal. “I wouldn’t be who I am without Jerry.”
Jenifer Ringer, who will dance and sing the role of Anita in “West Side Story Suite” at SPAC, said Robbins encouraged her, too. At one point, she was gaining weight and feeling down on herself, and he gave her a little pep talk. And then later, when Robbins selected her as Anita, and Spring in “The Four Seasons,” he taught her to connect with her partner.
Eyes on partner
“One thing that was big for Jerry was eye contact,” said Ringer. “He always wanted us to look at our partner, not away from him.
That was a big lesson to me. And now I get more enjoyment with my partners.”
Robert Maiorano remembers that same lesson. A soloist with the company from 1962 to 1984, he said that when Balanchine stood in the wings, the ballerinas would be crane their necks to eye him, not their partners.
“They were dancing for Balanchine,” he said.
Robbins would not tolerate that. Besides, he sat in the house with the audience.
“He was concerned with the overall effect,” said Maiorano, who lives in Saratoga Springs. “That was the most important thing to him.”
Yet the lesson Maiorano took from Robbins was not to dance to the music. “He said, ‘let the music take you. Dance between the spaces in the music.’ Like in ‘Dances at a Gathering,’ the Chopin music should be floating away.”
Maiorano admits that many dancers were either afraid of or disliked Robbins because he was a taskmaster and could occasionally explode in rehearsals. David Otto, another former soloist
with the company, remembers how he pushed the dancers to the brink on a regular basis.
“He pulled the best out of everyone,” said Otto, who danced with the company in the 1980s. “He was demanding. In rehearsal, he demanded full-out dancing, even if you had to do it 100 times. He never wanted you to [walk through it]. If you did, he’d say, ‘Come on, baby. I can get someone else to replace you.’ You worked hard, and he got the best out of us.”
Robbins was also very specific about what he wanted. When he was staging “I’m Old Fashioned,” Neal remembers having to watch Fred Astaire dancing on film over and over again. Otto remembers that too, as well as Robbins tirelessly urging them to dance like Astaire.
Time to relax
Then, once they got it, Neal said, Robbins would tell you not to “oversell it.”
“He wanted the glamour, the sophistication and the ease,” said Neal. “He’d say ‘hang back baby, relax.’ ”
Ringer said that’s why he like Kyra Nichols, because everything she did was effortless. In recent years, he preferred Damian Woetzel and Nikolaj Hubbe, because, said Neal, they were confident, which Robbins always respected. At the same time, he wanted each dancer to make his very specific steps their own.
Dancing during the Robbins Celebration, which also took place at Lincoln Center this past spring, Neal could hear the choreographer repeating “easy, baby, easy.” And then, as he glides through “I’m Old Fashioned” or “Brahms/Handel,” Neal can see him, too.
Otto laughs at that, as he still sees the choreographer, too. His image looms large outside of the studios at the National Museum of Dance where Otto teaches ballet. “I always see his face.”
Robbins’ face was familiar both on Broadway and at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center. But Maiorano said he never felt comfortable in either place.
“On Broadway, he was the ballet guy. At the ballet, he was the Broadway guy,” said Maiorano. “But he was the only choreographer Balanchine respected aside from [Antony] Tudor.”
Certainly, as a Broadway choreographer, Robbins was considered a showman and stylist. On either stage, he sought honesty. He wanted his dancers to be paired with just the right movement quality to bring out the human element. That was why his dances connected with the audience.
For the most part, Balanchine wanted his dancers to simply do the steps. Robbins, on the other hand, talked to his dancers about character. Ringer remembers chatting with him about Anita in “West Side Story Suite.”
“He wanted her to be sassy and be a leader of the girls, like a big sister,” said Ringer. “And even though she’s arguing and having the last word, he wanted Anita to always be friendly. It was supposed to be fun. Winning the argument with a wink.”
While initially terrified of this role, it was ultimately her most satisfying one. She also appreciates dancing his other ballets, such as the orderly “Interplay” and the mystical “Opus 19/The Dreamer” as “there is an honesty of human emotions that comes through. It’s real emotions, the real experience that people have and can relate to.”
That’s essentially the difference between Balanchine and Robbins. Otto said Balanchine was a purist interested in presenting something to the audience. Robbins, on the other hand, created his own world and drew the audience into it.
Maiorano added another difference that came up during a rehearsal with Balanchine. The choreographer turned to the dancers and asked what the latest dance step was.
“Jerry wouldn’t have asked. He would have known,” said Maiorano. “Jerry kept up with the times. Balanchine was ahead of his times.”
And at the end of the day, Maiorano said, Balanchine didn’t care if he failed. He created hundreds of ballets, some never seen after their premieres. Robbins, on the other hand, fretted over every detail in hopes of another enduring success. And the ballet usually was.
“He came from Broadway. Everything he did had to be perfect, because if it wasn’t, it would close. He spent a lot of time on every facet. And while I was there, everything Jerry did was a hit, a big hit. That takes a lot of work, a lot of luck. When he got his chance to create, he made sure it was damn good.”
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