Six years after his death, Jerome Robbins remains a key figure in the world of dance. Though his ballets are far less widely performed than those of George Balanchine, his mentor and master, they are staple items on the programs of such major companies as the Paris Opéra Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and above all the New York City Ballet (NYCB), the company for which Robbins created the vast majority of his dances. And though comparatively little of his work for Broadway survives except in fragments, at least two of the shows with which he was most closely associated, West Side Story (1957) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964), continue to be performed in versions that make use of his dances. The revival of Fiddler that opened last season at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre, for example, was completely restaged by the director David Leveaux—except for Robbins's original choreography, which was scrupulously reproduced.
Yet for all his continuing renown, Robbins has remained no less enigmatic a figure than he was in his lifetime. As I wrote seven years ago in these pages:
Robbins's fame . . . is based solely on his work, not his life. He rehearses behind closed doors and rarely gives interviews; no book has yet been written about him, and while he is known to be a demanding taskmaster, dancers' memoirs have typically been circumspect in commenting on his character.1
To be sure, some aspects of his private life have recently made their way into the public record. In 2000, the playwright Arthur Laurents, who worked with him on West Side Story and Gypsy (1959), wrote candidly and caustically in Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood about Robbins's homosexuality and his still-controversial decision to “name names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1953 (he had been a Communist as a young man). Two years later, the journalist Greg Lawrence published Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins, a tell-all biography based in part on interviews with some of Robbins's friends and associates. But Laurents's book was biased by his undisguised loathing for Robbins, while Lawrence was severely hampered by the fact that Robbins's estate refused to give him access to the choreographer's private papers or grant him permission to reprint excerpts from Robbins's letters.
By then, however, the Robbins estate was already cooperating with two other biographers, Deborah Jowitt, the dance critic of the Village Voice, and Amanda Vaill, the author of Everybody Was So Young (1998), a well-received book about the American expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy. Vaill's Somewhere: A Life of Jerome Robbins is scheduled for publication next fall; Jowitt's Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, has just appeared.2 The two writers had been expected to differ greatly in emphasis, with Vaill concentrating on the man and Jowitt on the artist. In the event, Jowitt's book has turned out to be a more or less conventional critical biography, one whose discussions of Robbins's ballets and Broadway shows are integrated into a detailed narrative of his life.
The critical half of Jowitt's book is admirable: serious, sensible, clearly written. The biographical half, though competent and informative, is less satisfactory, in part because she has no gift for literary portraiture. Rob-bins himself comes through vividly (if on occasion euphemistically), but none of his friends or colleagues, not even Balanchine or Leonard Bernstein, with whom he collaborated on West Side Story and Fancy Free (1944), his first ballet, is evoked memorably. In addition, many important episodes in his life, most notably his involvement with the Communist party, are discussed so cursorily as to remain largely opaque. Here as elsewhere, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance mostly fails to fill in the essential cultural context without which much of Robbins's behavior is likely to strike even the most sympathetic of readers as inexplicable to the point of unintelligibility.
In one important area, however, Jowitt has made superbly resourceful use of Robbins's papers. The creator of Fiddler on the Roof, it turns out, was obsessed with the subject of his Jewishness, returning to it time and again in his journals and other unpublished autobiographical writings. Jowitt has skillfully used this hitherto unavailable material to paint a compelling picture of a deeply divided man who for years found it all but impossible to come to terms with being a Jew.
Jerome Robbins was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918. Harry Rabinowitz, his father, had left his Russian shtetl at the age of fifteen, walked to Amsterdam, and boarded a ship for the U.S. in order to avoid conscription into the Russian army, service in which was a virtual death sentence for Jews. Lena, his mother, emigrated under less dire circumstances, but she, too, was fleeing anti-Semitic persecution.
A hard-working couple who ran a corset factory in New Jersey, the Rabinowitzes were not artistically inclined, and though they allowed young Jerome to study music and dance, the thought that he might become a professional dancer horrified them both. At the same time, his mother expected him to excel, albeit in a more traditional manner, and he would long be haunted by her expectations. He later recalled in his journal that Lena “set me up for extraordinary standards. As I felt she was perfect (& she wanted me to feel that) how could I ever achieve her love, I who was so imperfect.”
Though the Rabinowitzes were lax in their religious observances, they were nonetheless intensely aware of their cultural heritage, and in 1924 Lena took her children back to her own shtetl (which by then had become part of Poland) for a visit. Jerome was enthralled by this glimpse of the fast-disappearing world of his fathers, as he was by every other aspect of his family's Jewishness:
My being a Jew is not because I was bar mitzvahed. It is within the deepest part of my soul which was nourished by the countless unidentified cultural love stories . . . [t]he superstitions, the temperaments, the fears & the glorious good times, the celebrations, food, inflexions, songs; in the fights and the jokes.
But the casual anti-Semitism of his classmates frightened him, and so “from all of that I closed myself off—forgot it & threw [it] out (I was sure).” Once he finally managed to extricate himself from the family business and to begin the full-time study of dance, he changed his name to Robbins and tried to put his past behind him. “I didn't want to be like my father, the Jew,” he would later write. “I wanted to be safe, protected, assimilated, hidden in among the Goys, the majority.”
Robbins's attitude toward his “queerness” (as he referred to it) was equally conflicted. Though he readily declared himself a homosexual in order to avoid serving in World War II, he also had sexual involvements with women, then and later. “Please save me from being ‘gay’ and dirty,” he would write in a diary entry made in 1942, not long before his draft board classified him as 4-F.
In Fancy Free, a comic ballet about three sailors who try to pick up women while on shore leave in New York, Robbins made his conflicted nature clear—by omission. Though the creators of Fancy Free, Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, were both Jewish and homosexual, the ballet sounds the deracinated, “all-American” note to be found in most Broadway musicals and Hollywood films of the same vintage, just as its characters are portrayed as aggressively (if haplessly) heterosexual.3
The popular success of Fancy Free turned the hitherto obscure Robbins into a public figure who could not afford to have his homosexuality become generally known. From then on he conducted himself more discreetly, going so far as to become engaged to the ballerina Nora Kaye. He also continued to suppress his Jewishness, shying away from Jewish themes in his ballets and rarely working on musicals with explicitly Jewish characters or subject matter. Instead, he created a series of works, including the ballets Facsimile (1946, music by Bernstein) and The Guests (1949, music by Marc Blitzstein), in which he portrayed his anxieties in symbolic terms. (Facsimile, for instance, was a choreographic study of a romantic triangle involving a woman and two men.)
Nowhere was his divided self more fully manifest than in West Side Story. Created by four Jewish homosexuals (Arthur Laurents wrote the book and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics), West Side Story was originally conceived by Rob-bins as a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet in which one family would be Jewish and the other Catholic. Early on, though, it was turned into the story of a romance between a Puerto Rican girl and a member of an Anglo street gang. To be sure, the most memorable musical number, “Somewhere,” is a ballad whose lyrics refer not just to Tony and Maria in particular but to persecuted minorities in general: “There's a place for us, /Somewhere a place for us. . . . /We'll find a new way of living, /We'll find a way of forgiving.” Yet the makers of West Side Story chose to distance themselves from the autobiographical subtext of “Somewhere,” and as a result its undisguised emotionalism, like that of the show as a whole, comes across as sentimental, even mawkish.
Not until 1964 did Robbins deal directly with his Jewishness on stage—and then he did so with a vengeance.
A musical-comedy adaptation of the shtetl tales of Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof was seen by some hostile critics as sentimentalized to a fault.4 In retrospect, though, what is most striking about the show is that it makes no attempt to disguise its ethnic subject matter for easier consumption by non-Jewish audiences. Though the songs of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are not altogether free of Broadway-style uplift, Joseph Stein's book presents the Russian-Jewish experience with a straightforwardness all but unprecedented outside the Yiddish-language theater: the first act of Fiddler ends with a brutal pogrom, the second with the forced emigration to America of the villagers of Anatevka. And while Tevye the dairyman is presented as a sympathetic character, his (at least) initial refusal to sanction the heterodox ways of his daughters has a convincingly hard edge.
Having hitherto shunned such themes in his work, Robbins now took them up with excitement. He warned Bock and Harnick that their score had to dig deeper: “If every song is sweet, sentimental, sad, touching and nostalgic, all will come off as Second Avenue.” Not only did he encourage Boris Aronson to model his sets after the paintings of Marc Chagall, but he found inspiration for his own choreography in actual Jewish wedding dances:
Without any constricting elements except a rudimentary rhythm & an avid impulse to express their communal joy—the men stamped, kicked, hit the floor . . . tossed their arms about, flung their bodies around—each individual taking off as the ecstasy and inspiration moved him.
Nor was his fervor restricted to surface details. In a set of production notes dating from early 1964, Robbins analyzed Tevye's dilemma in language reminiscent of the strikingly similar preoccupations of such Jewish writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The drama of the play is to watch a man carefully treading his way between his acceptance of his sustaining belief (that way of life that is centuries old, practiced as if it were still in the Middle Ages, which protects & defends him & makes his life tolerable)—and his wry questioning of it within the confinements of the belief.”
What was it that finally freed Robbins to explore his Jewishness so uninhibitedly? Deborah Jowitt sheds no light on this puzzle, save to quote Robbins as saying that the show was “a glory for my father—a celebration of & for him.” Whatever the reason, he unceasingly goaded his collaborators to avoid the obvious, and the result was a powerfully moving visit to the lost world of turn-of-the-century Russian ghetto life, one that has retained much of its impact 40 years later.
The enduring strength of Fiddler was made clearer still by its latest Broadway revival last spring, in which David Leveaux deliberately soft-pedaled the Yiddish element in the original production, opting instead for a scenically spare presentation that some critics felt to be insufficiently “Jewish” in style. Even so, Fiddler made its customary impact, in this case heightened still further by the circumstances under which it was being seen. At a time when much of Western Europe was being blighted by a sickening recrudescence of anti-Semitism, Fiddler's tough-minded departures from traditional musical-comedy orthodoxy could hardly help being seen in the lurid light of recent events, and the impression they made was all the more potent as a result.
The success of the original Fiddler on the Roof, which ran for 3,242 performances, made Robbins a wealthy man. It also seems to have freed up some constriction in his psyche. He had parted company with the New York City Ballet in 1956, and between then and the opening of Fiddler in 1964 he had made only one ballet of significance, Moves (1959). A year after Fiddler, though, he created an ambitious new version of Stravinsky's Les Noces for American Ballet Theatre, and in 1969 he returned to NYCB, where he created a long string of works, including Dances at a Gathering (1969), In the Night (1970), The Goldberg Variations (1971), In G Major (1975), and Mother Goose (1975), that re-established him as the foremost American ballet choreographer of his generation.
Yet in spite of everything, Robbins remained full of doubt. In 1975, he checked himself into Harvard's McLean hospital to be treated for depression. Writing in his journal about his fear of the publicity that might result from his stay there, he described himself as “a Jewish ex commie fag who had to go into a mental hospital.” All the self-loathing he felt throughout his life is packed into this crudely ironic phrase.
At the heart of his anxiety, it seems, was the fear that he would be exposed as “a Jewish ex commie fag.” Never mind that he had proclaimed his Jewishness to the world in Fiddler on the Roof, that his homosexuality was by then a wide-open secret, and that his membership in the Communist party had become known long ago when he testified before HUAC. Despite all this, he still believed, as he confessed in another journal entry made a year later, that such publicity might wreck his career:
I was & have been—and still have terrible pangs of terror when I feel that my career, work, veneer of accomplishments would be taken away . . . the façade of Jerry Robbins would be cracked open, and behind [it] everyone would finally see Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz.
To read such agonized confessions is inevitably to be put in mind of George Balanchine, whom Robbins worshipped, calling Balanchine “the great master of our age.” Although his personality was at least as complicated as that of his younger colleague—and although he suffered from at least one potentially crippling form of self-doubt, regarding himself as physically unattractive—Balanchine had none of Robbins's deep-seated uncertainty.5 Unlike Robbins, he knew who he was and what he could do, and this assurance gave him a facility that Robbins envied. “When I watch Balanchine work,” the younger man wrote in his journal in 1971, “it's so extraordinary I want to give up.”
That Robbins should still have suffered from such anxiety at the age of fifty-three says much about his character. That he persisted, however, may say even more. Toni Bentley, who danced for both men at NYCB, recently paid tribute in the New York Times to the courage that led Robbins to work in the shadow of a far greater artist:
Robbins was Salieri to Balan-chine's Mozart, and we all knew it. On the Great White Way he was “Mr. Robbins,” the King of Broadway, but in the elevators and studios backstage at the New York State Theater he was “Jerry,” just “Jerry.” Balanchine was the Man. And he was the Man to Jerry too. Perhaps Jerry found it a relief. No one understood Bal-anchine's depth better than Jerome Robbins. . . . Robbins had the intelligence and humility to embrace it and risk living under its moral reckoning.
Seen in this light, Robbins's belated decision to embrace his Jewishness in Fiddler on the Roof acquires a similar tint of courage. What, after all, could be braver than to do the thing one fears most? All of which suggests that the success of Fiddler was no accident—for it is by way of such courage, however fleeting, that an artist gives of himself most fully. If, as seems likely, it is Fiddler on the Roof rather than West Side Story that will be remembered as Jerome Robbins's greatest achievement in the commercial theater, this may be the reason why.
1 “Choreography by Jerome Robbins,” April 1997. This essay is reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale).
2 Simon & Schuster, 619 pp., $40.
3 Revealingly, Robbins's initial inspiration for Fancy Free had come from the gay painter Paul Cadmus's The Fleet's In! (1934), a portrayal of sailors on shore leave in which homosexuality is clearly implied. No such implications would make their way into Fancy Free.
4 “Sholem Aleichem is deprived of his voice, his pace, his humane cleverness, and boxed into the formula of a post-Oklahoma musical: the gags, the folksy bounce, the archness, the ‘dream sequences,’ the fiercely athletic dances” (Irving Howe, “Tevye on Broadway,” COMMENTARY, November 1964).
5 As I wrote in 1997, “Balanchine was the ideal type of what the playwright Friedrich Schiller called the ‘naive’ poet—the wholly natural genius unburdened by romantic self-consciousness. Robbins, by contrast, is a no less ideal example of Schiller's ‘sentimental’ poet, beset by ideas, intensely aware of his alienation from the natural world, forever seeking redemption through his art.”