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Learning at the Feet of a Master Choreographer

July 25, 1991|ZAN DUBIN

"Let me put it this way: Perfection isn't good enough," says Cynthia Onrubia, candidly discussing Jerome Robbins' well-known reputation as a relentless taskmaster.

Onrubia is an assistant to the choreographer on "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," which Robbins choreographed and directed and which is running through Aug. 4 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

The Tony award-winning song and dance collage spans two decades, with excerpts from nine musicals that Robbins choreographed, directed or conceived between 1944 and 1964. There is drama and comedy, from "On the Town" to "West Side Story" to "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Before the show opened on Broadway in 1989, it underwent 22 weeks of rehearsals, before which Robbins and a crew of assistants spent six months meticulously reconstructing every number, mostly just from memory but sometimes with the help of dancers who appeared in the original shows.

Onrubia, 29, whose job includes maintaining Robbins' high standards through continual rehearsals as the musical tours, has been with it since Day 1. She is one of three choreographer's assistants--an unusually large number necessitated by the huge casts: 62 in the Broadway version and 50 for the national touring troupe appearing here.

"I remember (pre-Broadway that the) casting went through a lot of changes," she said in a recent phone interview. "Even after people were hired, he'd try someone out for one role, and if that didn't strike him right, he'd try out someone else. That was hard. Rehearsals were so grueling and so long, and people didn't find out for months if they got the role."

Did Robbins lose his temper and yell? "Oh, yeah!" Onrubia said with a laugh, although he would counsel dancers "not to take it personally."

The show will frequently have new cast members, because of injuries, mental burnout or simply because of the length of particular players' contracts, Onrubia said.

It is Onrubia who teaches them their roles. She tries, she said, to pass on Robbins' desire that they understand the who, what, when, where and why behind each character, so that each step has a dramatic purpose and is not simply a technical feat.

"He always says, 'Don't imitate, don't be a caricature, be a real person.' He came to see the show two days ago in Pittsburgh, and he still says the same things he said three years ago, whether to people who have been hearing it for a long time or people who have never heard it from the boss's mouth--which can make a difference. He says: 'Don't try to be funny, because then it's not funny. Don't play drama; keep it real, keep it true to your heart.' "

A former dancer, Robbins, now 72, is himself a master at characterization, Onrubia said. Onrubia is a Broadway gypsy as well--she created the role of White Cat in the musical "Cats" and appeared in the Broadway musical "Dancin' ."

During one early rehearsal for "Dream Come True," a number from "Billion Dollar Baby" subsequently cut from the show, she said, Robbins assumed the role of 1920s gold-digger Maribelle Jones, lounging on her couch and dreaming of the big time, she said.

"It was all pantomime, and seeing him do this character was unbelievable. You didn't see his white beard and little white mustache; he became Maribelle."

Or there was the time the choreographer took on the role of Bernardo, a teen-age gang leader in "West Side Story." "He didn't look like a man in his 70s. It's just something that happened throughout his whole body."

Onrubia said she has to keep an eye on "the orchestra, costumes, sets and lights" as well as on the dancers, and also that she stays in touch with Robbins through phone and fax.

"When people do the show month after month, night after night, things slip, things happen," she said. Dancers might try to embellish the choreography, or, as she put it, "find new things that are not necessarily the right choices" or alter steps to compensate for injuries.

Pointing out the same corrections over and over "because the same person keeps making the same mistake" is the most draining part of the job, she said. The best part is observing insights and nuances new dancers bring to their roles.

"There are still things I'm learning about this show, which is kind of hard to believe after three years. But every person brings something different."

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