by Anka Muhlstein and Louis Begley

Genius, like religious faith, is very difficult to discuss or write about, because each is a gift that inherently transcends our understanding. So is choreography, an art we cannot experience fully except during the fleeting moment of performance, when its achievement, the amalgam of movement and music, decor, costumes and light, is before our eyes. Then the logic and beauty of a masterpiece overwhelm us. And we can recognize genius. A little bell rang in Gertrude Stein’s head to tell her Picasso was one when she met him. The rest of us distinguish genius from mere great talent according to another, less peremptory signal: the power of those who have it to revolutionize our perceptions, to fit us, as Proust would have it, with a new pair of glasses. We put them on and get used to the new prescription; they slide to the tip of our noses; presto the world changes. Sometimes, our acceptance of its new aspect turns out to be so complete that we wonder how we managed, until that magic moment, not to see how things really are.

Jerome Robbins has accomplished just such a miracle. In a series of masterpieces of choreography spanning five decades — from Fancy Free through Afternoon of a Faun, The Concert, Dances at a Gathering, and In the Night, Watermill, Glass Pieces, I’m Old Fashioned, and Ives, Songs to West Side Story Suite, all but the first composed for New York City Ballet — he has revealed a fresh and totally original understanding of the lineaments of American experience, as well as the exquisite possibilities of translating that unique subject into the idiom of classical ballet. In The Goldberg Variations and Brandenburg, he fashioned a modern lexicon for the art of classical ballet, an achievement akin to Picasso’s meditations on his great masters, Velásquez and Poussin and Ingres and Delacroix.

Not even artistic genius is independent of history and context; context creates or denies opportunities. Robbins was fortunate to work in the ballet within a context, New York City Ballet, the existence of which was the fabulous creation of two other geniuses: George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, that hothouse and nursery of the company.

Jerome Robbins has also revolutionized that magnificent American invention, the Broadway musical comedy. There had been dancing in musicals before Robbins. It took the form of set pieces executed by gifted hoofers. Never again, not when he conceived, directed, or choreographed a show. Starting his vast Broadway oeuvre with On the Town (based on his first ballet, Fancy Free, after the premiere of which he burst into fame), in play after play, including the fabulous King and I, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof, Robbins has integrated dancing into the theater, making it pulsate within shows like a big heart. And what dancing! An exuberant outpouring of fun, longing, and compassion that draws on scrupulous research and observation, a knowledge of movement that’s in Robbins’s bones and lets him meld boogie with the steps of classical ballet and Hasidic feasting, all of it propelled by an astonishing and eclectic gift for music.

To put American content in a radically new focus, to free it of “Ol’ Man River” and Oklahoma! sentimentality, to convey his vision when he wasn’t working for the stage in the idiom of the classical ballet, may have been in part Jerome Robbins’s conscious or instinctive reaction to the work of his mentor, partner, and friend, George Balanchine, and its Russian emphasis. It could not have been accomplished without the qualities that mark Robbins’s genius: limitless empathy for the American scene, an irrepressible and unpredictable sense of humor, nurtured, one is tempted to say, in equal measure by Mark Twain, Damon Runyon, and Mack Sennett, the ability to see and retain everything around him, as though filmed by a battery of cameras pointing in every direction, and above all the humility and simplicity of attitude that is given only to very great men. When Jerome Robbins, apparently idle, stands at the top of the steps of the Metropolitan Museum and watches the crowd, it is a safe bet that he is in fact accumulating data for use in his work.

One may doubt that anyone who has looked closely at Fancy Free and On the Town will ever think of sailors on leave looking for girls except as an extension of Jerome Robbins’s three gobs dancing their hearts out against the backdrop of stools and tables of a bar, or forget how it captured the sadness and devil-may-care gallantry of this country at war. Afternoon of a Faun, which he fashioned into a delicate, tentative reaching out of one dancer to another as they work in the studio, broken when absorption with their own bodies prevails over interest in the other, has locked inside it the loneliness and grace of kids from the School of American Ballet one may watch at rehearsal, in the corridors on a break from class, at intermissions. In Robbins’s world everything is possible and yet uncertain and perhaps foredoomed. Kids aren’t the same everywhere; Robbins’s faun and Robbins’s nymph are kids trying to make it in New York.

Only Ed Koren has drawn a bead on the denizens of the Upper West Side as accurately as Jerome Robbins in The Concert. The mismatched couple, the intellectual lady who won’t brook the least distraction, the fall guy straight out of a cafeteria on Broadway — our fellow citizens are caught like butterflies in Robbins’s net. In Dances at a Gathering and In the Night, which form a Chopin continuum, Robbins does far more than examine the technical possibilities of partnering and patterns of group movement. The subject is social interchange, diffuse and often distant in the earlier ballet, more intense and personal in the second, which followed one year later, marked by loneliness, diffidence, and passion that doesn’t dare to trust in itself, “whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu…” Set to music by a Japanese composer, grave, inspired by No plays, Watermill is nevertheless quintessentially American. This prodigious recollection of time past by a hierophantic figure almost immobile under an August sky, on a beach fringed with tall reeds and caught between the ocean and Mecox Bay, is defined by the tension Robbins has created. On one side, Utopian serenity and sensuality; on the other a catalog of barely contained violence; a species of violence that, in spite of the exoticism of the assailant’s appearance, is bitterly American, like our serial killers. In I’m Old Fashioned, Robbins accomplished an impossible and glorious marriage; the best of American movie dance, Fred Astaire’s sinuous and rhythmically bewitching romp with Rita Hayworth to the music of Jerome Kern, matched with the best of American ballet, New York City Ballet’s take on the Astaire-Hayworth theme danced to a variation on Kern by Morton Gould. Glass Pieces is a paean to the American city of walkers — whose apotheosis is New York — and the perpetual movement of its nomads, rushing optimistically and purposefully to a destination that may never be reached. By contrast, Ives, Songs is a celebration of an America that is no more: pleasures and disappointments of small-town family life, children pretending to be soldiers and real soldier boys marching off to the Great War that was to make the world safe for democracy, young love, recollections of innocence and guilt. Robbins’s most recent addition to the genre shines among his works in the native grain. It is West Side Story Suite, a rethought version of the dances he had created for the musical, with the Sharks and the Jets as fresh, beautifully observed, and convincing as they were forty years ago.

Every supreme artist must master the form he works in and then struggle to bend or break it. That is what Jerome Robbins’s The Goldberg Variations and Brandenburg are most spectacularly about, although of necessity the same effort goes on in each of his works. Goldberg decomposes every step and device of the classical ballet repertory and then so recombines their elements that the structure of dance is presented and explicated. The experience of the whole of that ballet is rather like watching very attentively Merrill Ashley dance a sustained solo movement. One realizes that she executes it, even when the textual content is most passionate, with a certain detachment, so that its structural necessity is revealed. A similar decomposition and fusion occur in Brandenburg, which was created more than twenty-five years after Goldberg but has the exuberance of a masterpiece by a young man. Robbins’s contribution to classical ballet as an art form is immense. Because he infused it so thoroughly with the American vernacular of jazz, boogie, and ballroom dancing, it may be that he is even more responsible than George Balanchine for the way New York City Ballet looks today, for the ways in which it differs from the ballets of Petipa or Bournonville.

No, we had no doubt that Jerome Robbins was a genius before he became our friend Jerry. But although we were used to seeing him here and there in New York, we didn’t actually meet him until 1982. On the West Side, on the stage of the New York State Theater, he was an elegant silhouette in black taking a bow; on the East Side, he was amazingly determined and straight-backed figure on a bicycle, pedaling calmly toward the Seventy-ninth Street entrance of the park. We realized that he was our neighbor because we would run into him so often late at night, when we were coming home and he was out walking his dogs, Nick, large and dark, leading the way, followed by wiggly little Annie, whose dark-rimmed eyes made one think she might have been, in a previous incarnation, a silent movie star. We never spoke to him until one summer evening he entered our lives as a guest, brought to our house by the late duo pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. It so happens that in our part of Long Island — at the beach, as Jerry Robbins puts it — we are also his neighbors. As a matter of principle and practice, Arthur and Bobby couldn’t tolerate the anomaly of any of their friends not all knowing each of the others. They had been Jerry’s friends forever; we were relatively recent acquisitions. Yet, there it was: we had never been introduced. The solution Arthur and Bobby found was to invite him to a birthday dinner one of us was giving for the other at our house in Long Island. It was their present, they declared, and it turned out to be the best one we ever received.

That evening Jerry was, at first, a silent presence. Small talk is completely foreign to him, and we were not going to chatter about ballet in the presence of the greatest living choreographer. Therefore, the conversation followed the course that was preordained when the Gold-Fizdale team was around: we started out discussing food, and then briskly moved on to books. All at once, Jerry jumped in. He was reading Proust, for the first time, and had just finished Swann’s Way. He wondered whether Proust had a passion for the ballet. We were surprised by the question. There is a glorious, nostalgic scene in Remembrance of Things Past that takes place at a performance by the Ballets Russes, but we thought it was the only important mention of ballet in Proust’s work. A free-for-all argument began, with the senior Proustians at the table, Arthur and Bobby and us, all concluding that no, Proust had not been particularly interested in dance. Very quickly, Jerry persisted. It can’t be a coincidence, he explained, that Proust chose the unusual name Swann for a central personage and made him fall in love tragically with Odette, whose character shifts so quickly from white to black: obviously, he had Swan Lake in mind. From then on, Proust was present at every meal we shared. Jerry is the most personal reader we have known, in the sense that he never remains on the outside of the story a novel tells. In the case of Proust, Jerry’s relation to Swann’s jealousy, to the Narrator’s possessiveness, and to the havoc it wreaks, became so intense he couldn’t bear to go on reading. He did return to Proust eventually, and as soon as he had finished Remembrance of Things Past, began rereading it. When we saw In Memory Of…, we wondered how much the story of Albertine had contributed to that ballet’s exploration of lovers’ drifting apart, death, and despair.

We were struck by the way Jerry reads; and we are continually struck with equal force by his searching, almost restless curiosity about things and people. It isn’t just a dancer’s love of motion or an ingrained impatience. Jerry takes nothing at face value; he is always questioning. It is a fact that he doesn’t like to sit too long at table, especially in the noise of a gala dinner. We remember how one evening, at the State Theater, he leapt to the edge of the floor as soon as the band began to play and studied his dancers, those elegant, hair-in-chignon, toes-on-point ballerinas, transformed for that evening into boys and girls out for a night on the town, kicking up a storm, dancing their own way. He was, of course, amused. But his interest in one girl was truly intense. Jerry had known her and used her in his ballets for years, but just then he was seeing her indelibly in a new way. He came back to the table very excited: I didn’t know she had that in her, he informed us, it was as if she had pushed another button. That button could open for her the door to the great Chita Rivera role in West Side Story Suite.

One winter, we met Jerry in Paris. He was staging three ballets at the Opéra. New dancers, new stage. A lot of work. He invited us to a rehearsal. We were to meet him at the cantine. He showed up looking relaxed, fit and tanned as usual, a dark navy blue cap on his head. This was no American in Paris. Our friend Jerry, who had never uttered a word of French in our presence, was speaking it with authority, and with a perfect accent. He ordered a boudin avec pommes purées and proceeded to explain the difference between Paris Opéra’s dancers and his own New York City Ballet “jewels.” The Americans, he told us, dance in relation to one another, the French always want to let in the public. And that was contrary to the spirit of In the Night, the ballet he was working on with them. As we waited for the elevator that would take us to the rehearsal room tucked away in the Opéra’s top rotunda, Jerry’s dancers appeared as if from nowhere and surrounded him. The étoiles kissed him on the cheek, the younger girls and boys hovered at the edge, hoping to touch the Master’s parka. There was a sense of shared joy and anticipation. It was then that Isabelle Guérin unexpectedly told us, point-blank, “I hate rehearsing, except with Jerry.” We asked her why. “Because he is so serious,” she replied.

We settled down on a bench and watched. In their workout clothes, traditionally motley and casual, as though the dancers were in search of an antidote for the artifice of tulle, satin, and velvet, interrupted every few minutes by Jerry’s assistant, Jean-Pierre Frohlich, or Jerry himself, they went about the work of dissecting a pas de deux, putting together the mysterious bits and pieces that go into making a ballet that on stage, when the lights go on, will seem so inevitable and limpid.

Laboriously counted and repeated, time and time again, under Jerry’s implacably attentive gaze, the steps slowly blended. Patient, encouraging, tireless, he led his dancers to the result he wanted to attain. He used few words. The work was in the showing. Patiently, he translated his own gestures into the fluid movements the girls then took up. His hands and feet compelled imitation. Never allowing himself to appear frustrated, he dealt with his dancers very gently. Time passed. They went on repeating what he had taught them until, at last, they met his expectations. He lost his temper only once: at the pianist, who was going through the Chopin pieces as though he were alone in an empty room. Stop, cried Jerry, stop, you must look, you must always look at the dancers.

©1998 by Anka Muhlstein and Louis Begley
This piece first appeared in TRIBUTES: CELEBRATING FIFTY YEARS OF NEW YORK CITY BALLET published by William Morrow and Company, Inc.