From Ballet to Broadway— A Genius Makes His Mark

One of the most touching tales in Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins is about a gift that Robbins gave to Ethel Merman when she was starring in Gypsy. A resoundingly unreflective performer whose every instinct ran counter to Robbins’ Method-driven approach to performance, Merman nonetheless submitted to his persnickety but gentle coaching for her big number, “Rose’s Turn.” As the curtain came down one night, she walked off the stage with tears coursing down her face. “See? I’m acting, I’m acting!” she said ecstatically to two men standing in the wings. Robbins gave many such gifts to the people he worked with. Although most of them hated his rough, sometimes brutal treatment, their common “but” is that he got from them much better than they knew they had. Robbins’ gifts to the public are of course legion: On the Town, High Button Shoes, Gypsy, West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, Fiddler on the Roof. In ballet, there was Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, Les Noces, The Concert, Dances at a Gathering.

Robbins made them all, and they made him rich. The money began to come in at an early age, with his first ballet, Fancy Free, which premiered in 1944 when he was all of 25 years old. His reaction to this financial success was glee, because now he could afford psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis was to be a major offstage occupation throughout his life, and it was supplemented by voluminous diaries and notebooks, all of which form the core of Ms. Vaill’s research and shape the contents of her biography.

Why was this talented man—a genius, most would say—the most unhappy fella (one show he didn’t work on)? Born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, he was ashamed of being Jewish. He abhorred his homosexuality yet could never stick with the many women he also loved. His compulsive promiscuity (a word Ms. Vaill never uses) didn’t help the cause of stability with either gender. He valued loyalty, yet notoriously bowed to HUAC’s request to name names. Despite his sure instinct for the right way to stage a scene or choreograph a phrase, he felt compelled to experiment with endless versions of the same moment. One of his favorite devices was to have two or more people learn the same part, urging one to shadow the other as he did his solo. And the tradition lives on after his death, for the Robbins Trust appointed not one but two official biographers. (The other one is Deborah Jowitt, whose Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance was published in 2004). I’m sorry that Ms. Vaill didn’t comment on this arrangement in her author’s note, for it certainly pertains to the Robbins story.

Ms. Vaill devotes most of her effort to figuring out the roots of his conflicts and to finding patterns. As for his love life, she feels that he needed to be at the center of a triangle. No sooner had he settled down with one person than he took up with another, usually of the opposite sex of lover No. 1. I guess he liked to keep things on the edge. It’s of a piece with his habit of having one dancer shadow another, which initiated rivalries and created an angstful atmosphere.

The causes of these patterns, however, are not easily identified. There’s the mother impossible to please, the memory of feeling abandoned by her. There’s the memory of her histrionic tears—“You are putting nails in my coffin,” she’d scream at Jerry and his sister, Sonia—and the reconciliations. There’s the clownish, weak father, whom Robbins remembers betraying him when, dressed as Santa, he threatened to take back a delightful present because young Jerry wouldn’t go to bed. The shame of being a Jew stems from the moment when, preparing for his bar mitzvah, a group of neighborhood kids poked their heads through the window and made fun of him; worse, the rabbi didn’t chase them away.

Could even the best psychoanalyst find the reasons for his misery? Ms. Vaill certainly can’t, and I wish she hadn’t bothered to try. Her quest is not helped by the volumes of private musings she had access to. Genuinely introspective and genuinely tormented by his character, Robbins was forever coming up with his own theories about and explanations for his neuroses; the bit about the rabbi and the one about his cruel father as Santa are two of them. Ms. Vaill takes Robbins’ diaries at face value, and in a sense she’s stuck with them: She doesn’t argue with Robbins or come up with interpretations that he didn’t want to consider.

The best parts of Somewhere, many of them enthralling, are about the work rather than the life. I loved the stories about 11th-hour solutions to shows that were in trouble. The genesis of “Rose’s Turn”—an adlibbing session between Stephen Sondheim and Robbins, working alone after hours on a stage dark but for a work light—is the stuff of mythology, but it’s true! Ditto for the way he arranged an audition for Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert in West Side Story so that it would force out of them the anxiety and passion they needed for the roles of Maria and Tony. He wanted Ms. Lawrence and Kert to win the lead parts, and with his diabolical manipulation, he got what he wanted. To heighten the hatred that the Jets and Sharks needed to feel for each other onstage, Robbins spread incendiary gossip about individual dancers to the opposing gang.

Diabolical manipulation was again his means to the end during rehearsals for Interplay, a larkish ballet with one section describing friendly competition between two teams. Barbara Walczak was supposed to jostle the girl next to her, who happened to be Allegra Kent, the current favorite of George Balanchine and thus envied by her colleagues. So Robbins said to Ms. Walczak, “I know you hate her; push her in the face, slap her.”

The tales about Broadway run on their own steam, helped by Ms. Vaill’s talent for shaping the narrative. The ballets, on the other hand, require description of what the dancers actually do in order to come alive. Ms. Vaill pretty much avoids the subject. So the reader is left in the dark about the dance style that informed each ballet and, moving to a larger but imperative issue, the nature of a Robbins style in general. What made it unique, and what was Robbins’ contribution to dance literature? Since he made most of his ballets for George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, it would have been enlightening for the reader had Ms. Vaill contrasted the two men’s work. The question of whether Robbins was greatest on Broadway or on the concert stage has been tossed around by many critics for many years, but one more toss from his biographer would surely have been welcome.

There’s a reason for this paucity of critical commentary. I spoke to a member of the Robbins Trust, who told me that Robbins’ biography was divvied up into two areas—Deborah Jowitt was to handle the work and Amanda Vaill the life—the opinion at the trust being that the complete Robbins was too much for one person to treat. This is a pity, considering that the ideal biography unites the two. More of a pity here, since Ms. Vaill’s occasional forays into criticism are pretty good. She has interesting things to say about The Cage and The Concert, for example, and her enthusiasm for Dances at a Gathering makes the dance glow.

Dances at a Gathering was Robbins’ famous comeback to the City Ballet. Premiered in 1969, it was the first piece he’d made in 13 years for the company with which he’d forged his identity as a “serious” artist. So his return to Balanchine’s house was also a return home—the “Somewhere” of Ms. Vaill’s title, a place where it was, in Robbins’ phrase, “all right.” There are many gestures of home, of community, in the ballet, and Ms. Vaill is attuned to them; indeed, the seeming contradiction between Robbins the Terrible and the tenderness that he could evoke in a ballet like Dances is what piqued her interest in writing about him.

But many people (I’m one of them) find the invocation of community in Dances sentimental, even phony. Community was always beyond Robbins’ grasp, as much as he longed for it. How could a man so divided within himself make a commitment to others? And who would want to commit to him? Amanda Vaill’s empathy toward him is appropriate for a biographer, but let’s face it: He was one hell of a nasty guy.

Nancy Goldner’s forthcoming book on Balanchine’s ballets will be published next year by the University Press of Florida. From Ballet to Broadway— A Genius Makes His Mark