This year marks the centennial of the groundbreaking choreographer’s birth; Pacific Northwest Ballet is marking the occasion with a Jerome Robbins Festival from Sept. 21-29.
Jerome Robbins brought a bit of the street to the ballet stage.
You can see it in his playful early sailor ballet “Fancy Free,” in the way the cast so effortlessly blends dance with the strut and exuberance of being young in the city on a hot summer night. You see it in the swagger of “West Side Story Suite,” in the goofball interactions of “The Concert,” in the young man sleeping like a cat in a sunbeam in “Afternoon of a Faun,” in the very human interactions of the dancers in Robbins’ lyrical masterpiece, “Dances at a Gathering.” It’s ballet, but as if its practitioners wandered onto the stage from the audience; they are sublime, but they are us.
This year marks the centennial of Robbins’ birth; he died in 1998, choreographing nearly to the end at New York City Ballet (NYCB), his longtime artistic home (though he, long before Christopher Wheeldon, moved easily between ballet and Broadway). Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) is marking the occasion by opening its season with a Jerome Robbins Festival, featuring two different all-Robbins programs alternating in repertory Sept. 21-29.
PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal, who worked closely with Robbins at NYCB for many years, reflected in an interview last month on Robbins’ legacy. “Fancy Free,” choreographed in 1944 by a 25-year-old Robbins, represented a big shift, Boal said. Before that, “there wasn’t an element of pedestrian life in ballet … (Robbins) wanted that sassy quality of straightening your stockings and fixing your cap and chewing on your gum, and those were things that classically trained ballet dancers were being asked to do” — an infusion of a new vocabulary. It was, Boal said, “really a fresh coat of paint on a relatively old art form.”
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Robbins, a lifelong New Yorker whose Broadway triumphs included “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Gypsy,” is a complicated figure in the ballet world. Revered as a groundbreaking choreographer, he spent much of his career as a secondary NYCB figure to George Balanchine, the visionary choreographer who co-founded the company and was considered its presiding artistic genius. Balanchine invited Robbins to join the company as assistant artistic director in 1948, shortly after its inception. Robbins held that post for many years; after Balanchine’s death in 1983, Robbins shared the role of ballet master in chief with Peter Martins until 1990.
Famously struggling with his own demons — about his complicated feelings toward his own Jewishness and his bisexuality; about his guilt over naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950; about his perpetual insecurity about the worth of his work — he was a notoriously harsh taskmaster.
Boal, who witnessed many occasions of Robbins’ verbal tirades in NYCB studios, said that the choreographer was “really rough on about 90 percent of the dancers.” (Boal himself said he was in that lucky 10 percent; he’s not sure why.) Asked whether Robbins’ behavior would be tolerated today, Boal said it likely wouldn’t.
“I think the world is shifting,” he said. “I think people are made aware of certain standards of behavior today, and people weren’t setting those standards then. No one was calling Jerome Robbins into the human resources department to tell him not to speak that way in rehearsals, and he, like anybody today that that happens to, probably would have changed. But there was then a permissibility, or an allowance of that behavior.”
Boal believes that “Jerry didn’t want to hurt people … The goal wasn’t to tear you down, but to really get the best work, the best presentation of the ballet you were working on.” And his memories of Robbins, which began when Boal was a 10-year-old student playing Cupid in Robbins’ “Mother Goose,” are fond. (The choreographer memorably told young Boal to walk in the role as if “no twig could break under your foot.”)
As a NYCB company member, Boal danced many of Robbins’ works, often working closely with the choreographer himself. In the studio, Boal remembered Robbins in street clothes — sneakers, brown pants — and a neatly trimmed beard that grew whiter with the years. Though long past his dancing days (Boal joined the company in 1983; Robbins would have been in his 60s), Robbins still had the presence of the performer he once was. “He was an incredible demonstrator,” Boal remembered, “not so much in the jumping and the legs lifting, but in the focus of the face and how you react to other people.”
While staging his dances, Robbins would emphasize the importance of creating connection with fellow dancers. “He was very specific about not playing to the audience,” said Boal. “It was about the interactive relationships between the people on stage — to let them gel and be what they can be.” The audience would be witness to these interactions, but wouldn’t be performed to, “because there’s something impersonal about that.” Robbins would instruct dancers to look at their partners, finding a story in their connection.
Of the many Robbins works Boal performed, one special memory is “Dances at a Gathering,” which will be part of the PNB festival. Robbins originally choreographed the work — a haunting, hourlong mood piece for 10 dancers, set to Chopin — in 1969, but years later wanted to restage it and selected Boal for that cast.
“He wanted to teach us every gesture,” said Boal, remembering daily rehearsals with Robbins. But he also wanted the cast to understand the psychology behind the movement. Robbins instructed each cast member to mentally re-create a special, sacred place for them, “the cliffs of Normandy, the playground that you grew up on, the ballet studio where you did your training as a young dancer,” Boal said. And then, arriving at that place, just letting it all sink in, remembering the person you were when you were there — that’s where the dance begins.
“That was so rewarding,” Boal remembered. “It wasn’t just, get your leg higher, point your foot. It was like, what are your skills as an actor or as a memoirist.” Though Robbins struggled with feelings of inadequacy about his work, his approach to “Dances at a Gathering” had “a reverence that you could feel when we worked on it,” Boal said. “I think he was proud of it.”
Twenty years after Robbins’ death, Boal isn’t sure how the choreographer would feel about PNB’s festival. “He was very hesitant to have his work done elsewhere. He liked to control the product,” he said. (PNB had very little Robbins in its repertory until recent years, for that reason.) Boal remembered a NYCB night when Robbins dropped in unexpectedly to inspect an evening of his work. “Not a good night,” Boal said ruefully. “He didn’t like what he was seeing.”
“He was just such a presence,” Boal remembered, noting that no ballet master ever seemed to have the same authority as Robbins had — as soon as he walked into a studio, standards were instantly raised. “And now, Jerry’s never coming, so the standard is up. He’s watching, from somewhere.”
Jerome Robbins Festival, at Pacific Northwest Ballet Sept. 21-29, alternating between Program A (“In the Night,” “West Side Story Suite,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Other Dances,” “Circus Polka”) and Program B (“Circus Polka,” “The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody),” “Dances at a Gathering”); Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. $30-$189.
Also part of the festival: a preview/studio rehearsal on Sept. 14 ($15), the panel discussion “Working with Jerry” on Sept. 19 ($25) and the studio presentation “Jerome Robbins’ Male Solos” on Sept. 25 ($25). Information/tickets for all events: 206-441-2424 or pnb.org.