A Tragic Person, a Scoundrel and a Genius

Jerome Robbins was known as one of the great choreographers of all time, as a genius, as a friend to the rich and famous (and, indeed, “one of them”: He danced with Lauren Bacall at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball), as one of the four closeted gay Jewish men who made West Side Story , as a person who enjoyed humiliating young male ballet dancers during rehearsals and referring to some of the female ones with the four-letter word that begins with a “c,” as an informer, and as co-founding choreographer, with George Balanchine, of the New York City Ballet. Any man known for so much must have been a great man or a great scoundrel, or both.

When I came to New York in 1988, Balanchine was already dead five years, but Jerry Robbins and City Ballet were alive and not unwell, though I began to hear gossip to the contrary almost immediately–I heard that Jerry’s best work was finished and that City Ballet was on a steep slope going down to hell. I found this a little hard to believe. The evenings I spent at the State Theater that fall (and in the 10 years since) opened my eyes and my heart to a kind of beauty I hadn’t known anything about before. I was genuinely surprised by what I saw on the stage at City Ballet.

The first three Robbins ballets I remember seeing were Dances at a Gathering , The Cage and The Concert . Before long, I had also seen, at City Ballet or at the Paris Opera, The Goldberg Variations , Glass Pieces , Moves , Ives , Songs, Opus 19/The Dreamer , In Memory of … , The Four Seasons , I’m Old-Fashioned , In G Major , Watermill , Afternoon of a Faun , Antique Epigraphs , Fancy Free , Interplay and West Side Story Suite , the sublime Two- and Three-Part Inventions , Les Noces and Brandenburg , his last ballet.

At the same time, I also saw Balanchine’s ballets, and I preferred them to Robbins’–I loved them immediately and found them more mysterious. Robbins’ I found harder to like, because they were closer to my own experience of the world and therefore they seemed trivial to me at first. Eventually, though, I discovered that a comparison of Balanchine and Robbins was pointless–they were as different from each other as Russia is from America. I’d realized that Robbins was another kind of genius.

Jerry’s big themes–friendship and youthfulness and a distinctly American, very fragile joie de vivre –gave his ballets both form and substance. They were great themes, and in due course I figured out that they were great ballets.

I met Jerry around the time he was making Two- and Three-Part Inventions for the School of American Ballet. He asked me if I was a dancer. No, I said, I was a very bad ballet student–I was too nervous and uncoordinated. I could never remember what came next. “I could have made you a dancer,” Jerry said, without ever having seen me doing my own version of a glissade or jeté in some poor teacher’s classroom. What makes you so sure? I asked him. “I could make almost anybody into a dancer. You have to learn how to focus,” he said, “and dance for yourself, not for the audience. You have to forget about the audience and just dance. If you know what you’re doing, there’s nothing to be nervous about.” I suppose you’re right–if you know what you’re doing, I said. But not all of us do. “Well,” Jerry said, “you spend your whole life finding out.” That was my first meeting with him. I did not feel at all sure that we had a great future together as friends, and in fact we never did become close, though I saw him many times over the course of several years. Two of his closest friends, Aidan Mooney and Bill Earle, included me in some dinners with Jerry, some of them at Jerry’s house.

Jerry was not a forthcoming person, and I found it rewarding but difficult to be with him. He was not inclined to initiate conversations, and I didn’t have any idea what he would care to talk about. He was reticent, though he smiled and laughed often and he was always friendly and civilized at dinner. He read good books, and he had intelligent opinions and some admirable loyalties. I liked him. I’d heard all kinds of awful things about him, but as far as I could tell he was a serious person and a great artist.

I’d heard about the disgrace of Jerry’s submission to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and I thought I could sense in him a deep remorse. He even did some experimental work that was never produced which dealt with his testimony and his feelings about it. He seemed to me very sorry to have been weak at that crucial moment in 1953 when he not only acknowledged his past association with Communism but also clearly enunciated the names of eight of his colleagues who’d dabbled in that ideology. But he was stuck with having done what he did and he lived with it, as we all must live with our mistakes. Did he ever admit that he was wrong? I don’t know, but I believe that he knew it had been a mistake, and he didn’t know what to do about it. He was, after all, an ambitious man–if he hadn’t been, he would not have made the works we love so much. If it is true, as it probably is, that he ruined some careers–well, that was inexcusable and rotten. Yet I believe that the fact that he was never forgiven for this public act, and that his world was subsequently diminished, contributed to his character.

His discovery in his late 70’s of Kristina Fernandez, a student at the School of American Ballet, was already genius. She was ideal for Jerry, and for his Two- and Three-Part Inventions : an American beauty, young and completely uninfluenced by any single choreographer including Balanchine, with a gorgeous, slightly awkward body. She has the most beautiful hands, and she could dance–really dance–at 17. I’ll never forget seeing her go up on point in the quartet and throw her arms forward and over her head. It was like seeing an entire adolescence in a single moment. And then her partner does something odd–he turns her by holding her upper arm, and that, too, looks like something brand new. The long, slow trio looks at first almost underchoreographed; it’s uninsistent in the way that only a great work of art can be, by putting across its material with an almost silent fluency. The trio achieves its gravitas as it comes to a close: Only then do we realize how involved with it we’ve become, and how sorry we are to see it end.

In fact, that’s how I feel about much of Jerry’s work. The idea of sitting through another performance of The Goldberg Variations is never as alluring as the feeling I get when the aria is repeated near the end, and I realize that the world will soon intrude itself once again, and that whatever happens, I’ve been happy for a little while. In Two- and Three-Part Inventions , Jerry’s themes became permanently located on the stage in a classical image: What he had been doing his whole life was, after more than 50 years of work, distilled into a short ballet for four boys and four girls, set to some of the simplest and loveliest music Bach ever wrote. Because of this little ballet, which came toward the end of Jerry’s life, we will associate him forever with a freshness, and the signs of a new feeling, that only the severe masters of any art achieve. A Tragic Person, a Scoundrel and a Genius