In 1969, Jerome Robbins returned to New York City Ballet after concentrating for more than a decade on pop dance, Broadway musicals and experimental theater projects--some of which were never shown to an audience. He was 50, unsure about his future or even whether the suite of intimate Chopin dances he was beginning to choreograph would ever be worth watching.
When the ballet was about two-thirds done, he invited George Balanchine to a rehearsal, asking afterward, “Don’t you think it’s a bit long?” Not to Balanchine. “More. Make more,” he replied. And Robbins did, not only expanding this ballet to an hourlong masterwork titled “Dances at a Gathering,” but later choreographing “In the Night” and “Other Dances” to additional Chopin piano music in the same flow of creative mastery.
That flow and that mastery ended Wednesday, when Robbins died at age 79 in his home in Manhattan, four days after suffering a stroke. And, looking back on his career, it seems much easier somehow to celebrate his breakthrough pop-influenced triumphs--the all-American “Fancy Free” ballet in 1944, for example, or the gang-related “Romeo and Juliet” musical “West Side Story” in 1957--than such mercurial, deeply expressive movement poems as “Dances at a Gathering” that came straight from the heart of his genius.
Why? Perhaps because the man who was born Jerome Rabinowitz on Oct. 11, 1918, grew up to become the greatest force for assimilation in American dance. And the politics of identity in contemporary America makes the very idea of assimilation suspect or worse.
To the Rabinowitz-into-Robbins generation, however, assimilation represented not only a path out of the ghetto but a way of fully embracing the multiple heritages that shape American culture. An English dancer a year younger than Jerome R. might change her name from Peggy Hookham to the infinitely more glamorous and European “Margot Fonteyn,” but his switch to “Robbins” reflected a very different need--to define himself as an American artist free of prejudice or preconceptions.
And no choreographer seized that freedom more passionately. You could argue that Robbins’ ostensibly Siamese “Small House of Uncle Thomas” dance play in “The King and I” (1951) ingenuously combined elements from several different Asian idioms, but, more significantly, the sequence was as meticulously crafted, and as fundamentally serious, as the dances from “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), which reflected his own family’s Eastern European background.
Nobody matched him in creating whole societies on stage and distilling their essences and atmospheres--as in “Gypsy” (1959), a brilliantly staged musical steeped in the dying days of vaudeville and the heyday of burlesque.
You could also argue that the idea of assimilation or distillation suffuses Robbins’ greatest choreography for the ballet stage--that it explains the fusion of classicism, glints of folklore (or vernacular dance), expressive gesture and the dancers’ personalities in “Dances at a Gathering”: the sense of a movement language at once familiar and freshly imagined.
Creating this kind of stylistic fusion involved what Edward Villella has called bending the dancer to his vision.
“Balanchine believed that if what he choreographed didn’t feel natural, he was at fault, not the dancer,” Villella wrote in his autobiography, “Prodigal Son.” “With Jerry, if the dancer didn’t do exactly what he wanted, he tended to hold the dancer responsible. Jerry had difficulty instilling confidence in people because dancers could never entirely please him: It was never ‘right’ enough. And if the movement he gave us didn’t feel natural, he didn’t concern himself. The dancers had to adjust.”
Robbins’ extreme rehearsal demands are now legendary both on Broadway and in the ballet world, but he left behind a body of work that places him alongside Balanchine, Ashton and Tudor as one of the titans of 20th century classicism. His 1965 version of “Les Noces” stands on an equal footing with the 1923 Bronislava Nijinska original, and his 1953 version of “Afternoon of a Faun” reduces the 1912 original by Vaslav Nijinsky to little more than a historical footnote.
His Broadway projects proved equally innovative and influential, sometimes coming from ballets (“Fancy Free” leading to “On the Town,” for instance), but just as often leading him back to the ballet stage. After “West Side Story,” he continued exploring the themes and rhythms of youth culture in “New York Export: Opus Jazz” (1958) and “Moves” (1961) for his Ballets: U.S.A. company. And during this period--which included the release of the Oscar-winning “West Side Story” movie and a repeat telecast of his staging of “Peter Pan"--he was American dance, overshadowing Balanchine and everyone else, plus lighting fires in the imaginations of young choreographers that still burn today.
“More. Make more.” What a great command or plea or wish, for there will never be enough Robbins choreography in anybody’s repertory, never enough Robbins musicals in anyone’s season. The very idea of redefining oneself and a whole art form to embody an ideal of wholeness and inclusion may ultimately be doomed in this very imperfect world, but the late Mr. Rabinowitz gave us all a glorious sense of its impossible possibilities many, many times along the way.