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With each step, a discovery

Jerome Robbins His Life, His Theater, His Dance Deborah Jowitt Simon & Schuster: 622 pp., $40

August 08, 2004|Janice Ross | Janice Ross, a professor of dance history at Stanford University, is the author of a forthcoming biography on modern dance innovator Anna Halprin.

The myth of the suffering artist endures in painting, poetry and literature, but it has a lesser-known counterpart in the performing arts -- the suffering inducing artist. This is the individual who inflicts on others what most artists in these more solitary media merely inflict on themselves. In dance, a performing art with more than its share of difficult personalities, ballet and Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins was reputed to be one of the most gifted of dance makers, yet also demanding, temperamental and the cause of suffering for others. This may be in part why no candid assessment of his life and work was published until after his death of a massive stroke in 1998, three months short of his 80th birthday.

After Robbins' death, his literary executors opened his archives to biographers Deborah Jowitt and Amanda Vaill and a friend, writer Christine Conrad, who has published a picture book. Now Jowitt, dance critic for the Village Voice for the last 37 years, has written the first authorized biography, "Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance." It is candid yet balanced, insightful about his work and revelatory about his theater. It lays bare the tension between Robbins the person and Robbins the artist, and what his associates endured to have access to the art. Jowitt suggests an almost erotic tension to the games of cruelty and domination he played in the rehearsal rooms in which he brought forth his masterpieces of American identity in motion -- "Fancy Free," "On the Town," "West Side Story," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Dances at a Gathering." These works cross between the genres of ballet and musical theater, and their content swings from abstraction to detailed psychological storytelling -- territory Robbins traversed with both fluency and, Jowitt suggests, continual anxiety. "So how come I still think of myself as phony and my talent as invisible ink?" he wrote in a journal before the premiere of several major works at a 1972 Stravinsky festival.

Robbins was an extraordinary popularizer of dance and an artist who did so without selling it short. Jowitt is in many ways his equivalent as a dance critic, a master of vernacular expository prose, rendering the texture, sensation and pleasures of watching moving bodies. This fluency doesn't appear often enough in the book, but when it does, there is poetry in the match of writer and subject. In an early review on the occasion of the New York City premiere of his "Dances at a Gathering," she wrote: "[It] is a very quiet ballet; everything about it, every possible meaning is whispered -- as if it were happening in such clean air that sound carries a great distance."

The first moment we see critic and dancer meet on this expository plane comes early in the book when Jowitt views the young Robbins in an early 1940s home movie filmed on the rooftop of the Weehawken, N.J., apartment building where his parents lived. "He looks fluent and boisterous, with a kind of witty precision -- easy and intense at the same time." With this single sentence she captures a central paradox in the allure of Robbins' style. Later, she extends this insight: "Atmosphere is crucial to his work, and atmosphere is very hard to rehearse."

Jowitt begins her tale of Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz by slyly showing how the future is located in the past as she draws on Robbins' own notes for an unpublished autobiography. The child of eager-to-assimilate Russian immigrants, Robbins' first connection to his Jewishness came in 1924 at age 6 when his mother, Lena, took him and sister Sonia to her husband's Polish shtetl to meet their grandfather. In her description of the kindly man singing little Jerry to sleep with Yiddish songs at night we can imagine the model for Tevye, his shtetl and his passion for the Jewish tradition in "Fiddler on the Roof."

Jowitt suggests that Robbins' methods for achieving this kind of expressiveness in dance were similarly forged early, when as a 21-year-old entertainment counselor at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos, he learned to hold an audience with the illusory spontaneity of a vaudevillian while sharing the stage with comedians Danny Kaye and Imogene Coca. Barely two years later, Jowitt suggests, Robbins absorbed another essential ingredient of his style -- infusing character through dance. She details him observing choreographer Antony Tudor demonstrating Stanislavsky-like "tactics for getting dramatically rich performances out of dancers," as a likely model.

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