Somewhere: A Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill

Sid Smith
Chicago Tribune

A compelling biography of innovative dance master 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

Few artists influenced Broadway or ballet as much as he did, and no one else so profoundly influenced both. Jerome Robbins conquered -- and in many ways defined -- both the musical and modern American ballet, a genius by nature while, by reputation, all too often an S.O.B.

The gifted, troubled, complicated choreographer infamously named names during the communist witch hunt. When a dancer once blamed her lackluster performance on learning, just before curtain, that her fiance had been killed, he told her that if it had been anyone but her, that person would have been out of the show.

Sensitive guy. Yet, when it came to dance, no one was more sensitive, or innovative. Based on his idea, West Side Story is considered by many the apex of the musical form, blending drama, song and dance with unprecedented synthesis. His direction and choreography of the stage version earned him the job of co-director on the movie. But then bad Jerry re-emerged. Before shooting was over, he was summarily fired.

Even his greatest feats could inspire only back-handed compliments. After designing sets for Fiddler on the Roof, Boris Aronson, when he saw Robbins' breathtaking choreography for villagers dancing with bottles atop their heads, said, "`Any man who can do that, ... I forgive everything.'"

Great subject for a biography? You bet. Amanda Vaill's Somewhere is hardly the first. Nor, despite full access to Robbins' journals and letters, does it feature that much more detail -- story by story, anecdote by anecdote -- than Deborah Jowitt's 2004 Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.

But Vaill, author of Everybody Was So Young, about the Lost Generation's Gerald and Sara Murphy, proves the better stylist, the more seductive storyteller and the more penetrating psychologist. She's often a more-compelling analyst of Robbins' choreography.

Certainly, Robbins' contradictions, mysteries, achievements, failures and vision add up to a life worth visiting and revisiting, one probably destined to forever evoke hurrahs and pans alike. Vaill tells more about the nasty side of his personality than she shows. This isn't a gossipy speed read of vitriolic tidbits, at least in terms of his rehearsal demeanor. It's more a matter of methodical reporting on the psychology that made him so driven.

But, for dish, there's no shortage of detail about Robbins' crowded, athletic love life, one that made room for plentiful men and women. His loves were sexual and platonic and sometimes a tormented mix of both, involving the famous (Montgomery Clift), the tragic (Tanaquil Le Clercq, paralyzed at the height of her ballet career by polio) and the uncertain (a young Horton Foote, a close friend and object of Robbins' apparently unrequited desires.) To Vaill's credit, while her work is a who's who of whom he did and didn't sleep with, Robbins' bedroom antics meld into a carefully sketched portrait of a man hungry much of his life -- for love, acclaim and artistic perfection, an ideal he hunted as unrelentingly as a hound after a scent.

Robbins, who died in 1998, was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918. His father was an immigrant from Rozhanka, a village on a vast plain that is now Lithuania and Belarus. It's demolished now but survived long enough for Robbins to visit it as a child, taken by his mother to meet his paternal grandfather.

His father was relatively successful, set back only somewhat by the Depression. But the battles at home could be screeching, sometimes between the parents, and sometimes when Lena, his mother, would express exasperation at her only son's misbehavior. "`I want to be dead,'" she'd cry to the Lord. Or she'd pretend to call an orphanage on the phone and beg them to come get him.

Robbins' absorbed it all, including a family predilection for music (his older sister and only sibling took to dance first), while his later creative storms echoed early family life. Meanwhile, he also absorbed elements of his father's shtetl roots and the Jewish immigrant culture so fundamental to 20th-century American show business. As a young man Robbins worked at a summer getaway, toiling alongside such physically adept entertainers as Danny Kaye and Imogene Coca.

Vaill's account is steady and determined, moving logically and easily from one event to the next. The wealth of Robbins' achievements, whenever you contemplate them in aggregate like this, always takes your breath away. A dancer with the organization that became American Ballet Theatre, he created masterpieces fostering a blunt new American style ("Fancy Free" at age 25). He worked with legendary collaborators (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, George Abbott, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein). He later joined up with George Balanchine and became almost as central to the New York City Ballet as that genius.

Meanwhile, on Broadway, credits include On the Town (a pioneering achievement), Call Me Madam, Bells Are Ringing and The King and I, where he provided a memorable dance reduction of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

And then there was West Side Story, his idea and, all the other collaborators notwithstanding, his triumph. Later came an even more personally rewarding glory: Fiddler on the Roof, destined to be Broadway's longest-running hit for a spell and a fabulous homage to the shtetl soul so crucial to Robbins and much of the American musical as a whole.

Vaill is particularly good at zeroing in on Robbins' hunger for invention. Of Fancy Free, his 1944 romp about sailors on leave in New York, she writes, "Jerry had taken dance right off the street, in this case the streets around Times Square, and the dance language he was using infused the traditional vocabulary with current popular steps and naturalistic gesture." Robbins improvised one of the lifts outdoors while he and another dancer were trudging through the snow. This realism, this effortless, everyday gesture, distinguished Robbins from, say, Balanchine, a stately father figure whom Robbins admired and sometimes resented.

While not making excuses, Vaill is fair-minded when it comes to Robbins' caving in during the witch hunts. He was privately bullied from the start by columnist (and legendary TV show host) Ed Sullivan, who threatened to reveal not just his communist background, but his sexuality. Being outed as gay at the time possibly risked Robbins' future more than his leftist past; certainly Robbins was more terrified of it.

A legend with a dark shade, Robbins was at home with the scrappy and poetic, the profound (The Skin of Our Teeth) and the fairy tale (Peter Pan). Sondheim told an interviewer that it was he and Robbins who hammered out together the song known as "Rose's Turn" during the preparations of Gypsy, without the show's composer, Jule Styne. "`It was just Jerry and me and a work light,'" Sondheim remembers. It remains one of musical comedy's most electrifying solos.

His ballets are still mainstays of the New York City Ballet, but his Broadway achievements are harder to preserve, especially the meticulous care and attention Vaill chronicles so well show after show, dancer after dancer, gesture after gesture. Even Jerome Robbins' Broadway, a retrospective 1989 revue he and some long-lost former colleagues agonized over in order to restore forgotten details, doesn't survive on commercial video. There's the movie West Side Story, but Robbins didn't choreograph, for instance, the film version of "On the Town."

Somewhere probes, dissects and eulogizes the life of this member of a rare renaissance breed and giant of mid-century entertainment. He was exasperating, relentless, riddled with demons, impossible and impossibly blessed, a born showman with an irreplaceable talent to amuse.

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