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Somewhere: A Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill

Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News

Author makes excuses for offstage nastiness of brilliant choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Somewhere: A Life of Jerome Robbins

Publisher: Broadway Books
Length: 688
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $40.00
Author: Amanda Vaill
US publication date: 2006-11
UK publication date: 2006-11

Jerome Robbins was the two-headed monster of the American stage -- with emphasis on the "monster."

He was the greatest American ballet choreographer of his day and remains the greatest still. He also combined the jobs of stage director and choreographer of Broadway musicals, thus leading the way for long line of tyrant-geniuses that later included Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Susan Stroman.

But the guy who dreamed up West Side Story and even won an Oscar for directing the movie version (though he was fired before the shooting was half-finished) was the most hated man on Broadway -- or in dance, for that matter.

Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, the new biography by Amanda Vaill, details every nasty thing Robbins did backstage, not to mention dishing the dirt on all the men and women the famous director bedded. But somehow she discounts the stories by providing excuses, psychological or otherwise. (Robbins' distant, demanding mother criticized him incessantly, so apparently he had no choice but to do unto others, only meaner. His self-loathing was only intensified when he agreed to name names when questioned about his former Communist Party associations during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, poor guy.)

There's no shortage of biographies of the artist born Jerome Rabinowitz in 1918 -- at least four have been published in the last five years. Vaill had access to a great many rare documents and gives us the story in detail. She tries to balance the artist's darker side against his talent and his obvious personal charisma. But she seems to have fallen in love with him every bit as much as his dozens of lovers and his legion of fans.

We learn how he carried on with movie star Montgomery Clift for two years, for instance. Robbins admitted that if forced to choose, he preferred men -- but he had a number of long-term (if hardly exclusive) relationships with women, was engaged several times, and never completely gave up the idea of marrying. One of the strangest tales in all this was his almost lifelong flirtation with Tanaquil Le Clercq, the great ballerina who married her boss George Balanchine before succumbing to polio at the height of her career, but apparently always had a bigger thing for "Jerry."

The account of Robbins' professional career is as exhaustive as that of his amorous one. The young dancer-choreographer's first collaboration with composer Leonard Bernstein, the ballet Fancy Free, established him on the front lines of American dance. When the pair adapted the same tale of three sailors on shore leave into a completely different musical comedy, Wonderful Town, Robbins became a choreographic force on Broadway, as well. Eventually he became the theatrical strongman behind such all-time hits as Fiddler on the Roof.

After a couple of years of depression and fallow artistic experimentation, Robbins rejoined Balanchine at New York City Ballet and spent the last 30 years of his life creating ballets, some of them as great as Dances at a Gathering, again.

Vaill fills us in on every zigzag of the genius' career, discussing every ballet and every Broadway show. But for those of us who know most of the work firsthand, there's no new critical insight to be gained in these 675 pages. Nor do we get any real sense of the pieces we don't know, apart from a skeletal description.

Maybe, then, it's not such a good idea to spend years writing a biography of a man who awed you when you saw him around your neighborhood when you were growing up. Especially if you don't really have anything to say about him, except a generalized belief that there must have been a good heart under all that verbal abuse he poured out on colleagues and subordinates over the years, and under all the manipulations of friends and lovers.

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