Jerome Robbins, ‘Peter Pan’ of Dance, Dies

<i> From a Times Staff Writer</i>

Jerome Robbins, the brilliant and bravura creator of pioneering American ballets and Broadway hits, died Wednesday in his Manhattan, N.Y., home. The master choreographer of the New York City Ballet and Tony and Oscar winner for “West Side Story” was 79.

Steve Miller, a spokesman for the ballet company, said Robbins had suffered a stroke Saturday.

Robbins, who shot to fame at the age of 25 with his first ballet, “Fancy Free,” left a legacy of varied dancing gems: “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Dances at a Gathering,” “Ives, Songs” and many more. For much of his life, he crafted one or more ballets or musicals nearly every year.

At one point in 1958, when he had works playing in five theaters, a New York Herald Tribune headline declared, “New York Is a Jerome Robbins Festival.”

He worked with the finest. Such dancers as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Patricia McBride, Suzanne Farrell, Peter Martins and Michael Bennett. Such actors as Ethel Merman, Zero Mostel and Mary Martin. Composers Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers. In 1981, Robbins received the Kennedy Center Honor, the nation’s highest official distinction for performing artists, and in 1988 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan.


Robbins’ unadorned, perceptive touch transcended all manner of media: ballet, Broadway musicals, movies, plays, opera and television. Set designer Oliver Smith, who often collaborated with him, said that “in terms of theatrical staging and direction . . . Robbins has gone further than any other choreographer. . . . [He] has the most highly developed visual sense of any choreographer.”

Martin, whom Robbins directed in “Peter Pan,” described him as a sprite. “He is Peter Pan. He stimulates to such a degree that no one is ever conscious of time. There is only the joy and excitement of working with a genius.”

The critics were equally ecstatic:

The New Yorker’s Arlene Croce said, “Robbins’ greatest ideas are nearly always revelations of the commonplace . . . [He knows that] tensions and barriers as well as the most magical correspondences exist between ballet’s fantasy world and real life.

“When Robbins is expressing familiar things in ballet terms . . . he has a quality of insight like no other choreographer’s. . . . Alone among major choreographers, Robbins has ideas about ballet; he conceptualizes while the others move.”

His life was not always filled with such flowery phrasing.

Became Restless With Traditions

Robbins was born Jerome Rabinowitz in 1918 in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrants; he changed his name in the early 1940s when he became established. His father operated a delicatessen and was later a corset manufacturer. As a child, Robbins studied piano and violin; at the age of 3 1/2, he performed publicly on the piano.

When he was a teenager, he went to watch his older sister, Sonya, dance at the Gluck Sandor studio and started taking lessons. He attended New York University but quit after one year, deciding to focus on dance.

By the mid-1930s, he was studying a spectrum of dance: modern at the New Dance League, interpretive with Alyce Bentley and his sister; Spanish with Helene Viola, Oriental with Nimura, ballet with Antony Tudor, Ula Duganova and Eugene Loring. In 1940, after appearing as a chorus boy in several Broadway shows, he joined the newly formed Ballet Theatre (later known as American Ballet Theatre), eventually dancing solo roles.

Robbins, however, became restless with traditional ballets. “I had just spent I don’t know how many years dancing with Ballet Theatre at the point where it was completely ‘Ballet Russified,’ ” he said later. “And for one whole year I did not get out of boots, Russian bloomers and a peasant wig. And I thought, ‘Why can’t we do ballets about our own subjects, meaning our life here in America?’ ”

The result was Robbins’ first ballet, “Fancy Free,” in 1944. The half-hour, lighthearted glimpse at three sailors on leave in New York (one of them danced by Robbins), trying to impress the women they have picked up, received 20 curtain calls opening night. The next morning, John Martin of the New York Times proclaimed it a “smash hit.”

In it, Robbins integrated ballet with bits of other dances--the Lindy, boogie-woogie, waltz and rumba. “Fancy Free” was a groundbreaker. It also marked the first of Robbins’ successful collaborations with set designer Smith and composer Bernstein.

“Suddenly, I was not only in, but sought after,” Robbins recalled in 1980. "[I was] very surprised by the first interview I had where someone asked me, ‘Well, what do you think the future of American dance is, and where it lies?’ And I thought, ‘My God, I don’t know anything about it. I’m just out of the corps de ballet. I don’t have a theory about it. Why are they asking me these questions?’ ”

In less than a year, “Fancy Free” was adapted into the Broadway musical “On the Town.” For the rest of his career, Robbins would bounce between ballet and theater and from one triumph to the next.

Over the next few years, he created such ballets as “Interplay” and “Facsimile” and staged the dances for “Billion-Dollar Baby” and “Miss Liberty” on Broadway. With George Abbott, he conceived, choreographed and co-directed “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’,” which depicted the problems of a ballet company. He won his first Tony for his dances in “High Button Shoes,” starring Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabray.

In 1948, Robbins joined George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet as a dancer and choreographer. His dancing the title role in Balanchine’s “The Prodigal Son” won him a Dance magazine award. But in 1952, during a performance, he was jarred by the thought of “cavorting like this at the age of 34,” as he once said in an interview, and decided to stop dancing.

Sociological themes ran through many of his early City Ballet works, such as “The Guests,” about social intolerance, “Age of Anxiety,” about the need to belong, and “The Cage,” about insect-like female predators. On Broadway, he created a sequence for “The King and I” in which the royal Siamese wives and slaves act out “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Another expression of his social and political consciousness was his membership in the Communist Party’s “Theatrical Transient Group” from 1943 to 1947, revealed years later when Robbins testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins in 1953 told the committee, which was investigating Communist activity in education and entertainment, that joining the party was “a great mistake.” He was criticized later for identifying a few other artists as Communist sympathizers.

With “The Pajama Game,” done with Abbott in 1954, Robbins again branched out to directing. He then choreographed and directed “Bells Are Ringing,” with Bob Fosse, and “Peter Pan.” His television production of “Peter Pan” won two Emmys in 1955.

The best-known of his legacies, “West Side Story,” came next. The modern “Romeo and Juliet” played out by two rival New York gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, is considered by many to be Robbins’ masterpiece. He conceived, directed and choreographed the production, with Bernstein’s music and Smith’s sets. Opening on Broadway in 1957, it won a Tony for choreography and rave reviews, running for 734 performances and continuing in revivals at his death.

For the movie version in 1961, Robbins won two Oscars, one for directing (with Robert Wise) and a special award for “his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”

From ‘Gypsy’ to ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Robbins left City Ballet in 1958 to start a company to take American dance abroad. Ballets: U.S.A. debuted at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. In its three European tours, the company showcased such new Robbins pieces as “New York Export: Opus Jazz” and “Moves,” a ballet with no music.

Meanwhile, Robbins continued to create for theater. He directed and choreographed Ethel Merman in “Gypsy,” and directed a nonmusical play, “Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet, and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.”

His next blockbuster, “Fiddler on the Roof,” won nine Tonys, two of them for Robbins as choreographer and director of a musical, plus a New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for 1965. The story of Tevye, a pious Jewish dairyman in pre-revolutionary Russia, ran for 3,242 performances. Again, Robbins conveyed the characters’ emotions and hopes rather than stopping the show with glitter.

Robbins’ varied career took yet another track in 1966, with a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a “lyric theater” that would be free of commercial and economic pressures, a kind of artistic version of the National Science Foundation.

“I wanted to see if I could make theater pieces the way I make ballets,” Robbins later said, with “the kind of freedom you have in the ballet studio while you’re creating.”

The American Theatre Laboratory lasted two years, but none of its work was shown. Although Robbins never publicly revealed how the laboratory affected him, some say it may have intensified his desire for artistic freedom: He spent most of the rest of his career on ballets rather than theater.

Returning to the City Ballet studio, Robbins crafted “Dances at a Gathering,” the romantic, witty piece for 10 dancers set to Chopin; “Water Mill”; “An Evening’s Waltzes”; and “In G Major.” “Dybbuk Variations” was born from the Shloime Ansky classic Yiddish play and entailed another collaboration with Bernstein. “Opus 19,” with a Prokofiev score, was made for Baryshnikov.

City Ballet and a Retrospective

In 1983, Robbins and Peter Martins were named joint ballet masters-in-chief of City Ballet, to succeed the ailing Balanchine. Then in his 60s, Robbins became the company’s chief choreographer, spinning such delights as “Variations on I’m Old-Fashioned,” a Fred Astaire-inspired melange of duets and solos. “Ives, Songs,” unveiled in 1988, was instantly declared a “tour de force” by the New York Times. The ballet, set to Charles Ives’ songs, depicted a man’s recollection of his childhood and youth.

That year, Robbins also began work on a retrospective of his 20 years of Broadway choreography, from “On the Town” to “Fiddler.” The result, “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” won six Tony Awards in 1989, including best musical and a best director award for Robbins. A year later, it played the Shubert Theatre in Century City.

Despite his incredible versatility in ballet, on Broadway and on screen, Robbins preferred the first.

“On Broadway, a choreographer must serve the show,” he said in a 1980 interview. “He must deal with a given space dictated by the set, the qualities of the performers and the songs, and the pressure of whatever else has to be rehearsed. . . . When I do a ballet, good or bad, it’s all coming out of my own thoughts; there is just me, the dancers and the audience to contend with. . . . And if a ballet fails, you can always think about it and try it again another year. Economic considerations make that impossible on Broadway.”

His works re-created society on stage. Many of his ballets--"Fancy Free,” “The Guests,” “An Evening’s Waltzes,” for example--centered on social occasions and described the tensions and relationships among people. In “West Side Story” and “Fiddler,” he portrayed the dreams, fears, customs and courtship rituals of his subjects. He melded classical ballet with everyday dance, movement with backdrops and lighting.

His ideas came from anywhere and everywhere. He read, viewed paintings, watched people strolling in the streets and dancing at parties, listened to music. One of the original dancers in “Fancy Free,” Janet Reed, recalled in a 1980 interview that “once, on tour, looking out a train window, we saw planes flying in a shifting, triangular formation, and Jerry choreographed that into the opening sailors’ dance.”

He was known to be a taskmaster; he pushed “Fancy Free” dancer Muriel Bentley, for instance, to tears. His dancers were expected to be thoroughly dedicated artists and professionals, equipped with classic ballet training and modern jazz technique. But, as Robbins said, “I ask for a great deal, but no more than I give myself. I am extremely self-demanding.”

And he did give of himself. In his mother’s memory, he established the Lena Robbins Foundation to assist young choreographers. The dance film archives of the New York Public Library, the beneficiary of 1% of Robbins’ royalties from “Fiddler,” were named after Robbins in 1987. That year, he was also the artistic coordinator for “Dancing for Life,” a gala benefit to raise money for AIDS education and research.

He was a driven perfectionist, everyone agreed. “Balanchine’s ballets occasionally hit the stage looking slightly disheveled,” critic Deborah Jowitt said in the New York Times Magazine in 1974. “Robbins’ ballets never look anything less than scrupulously polished.”

Robbins also gave the world ballets that “are so succinct, so polished that they have a way of seeming to sum up or epitomize an idea, a form, a moment in time,” Jowitt wrote. “He has the last word: No one will have to do a ballet on that theme again.”

‘The Work Pours Forth’

Characteristically, though, Robbins avoided philosophizing about dance.

“I rebel violently against being classified and being specific about what my ballets are about,” Robbins told an interviewer in 1961. “Try to ask a painter what he thought about when he put red in one spot and blue in another. I work for months, days and hours and keep changing until many, many moments come from a deep unconscious stream. Then I work through layers until I get to the level I call the key or spine of that work. Once I hit that, the work pours forth.”

What he really cared about, he said, was working, creating. “Sure, I’m not as agile as I was at 25,” he told the New York Times in 1988, “but I still get around. If Martha Graham can do ‘Rite of Spring’ at 90, and Balanchine could work up until a year before his death--then I’ll go as far as I can go, and when I can’t go on, I’ll stop.”