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Dance | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

The man called Robbins

A new biography that draws on his private archives sheds even more light on the careful choreography of his life.

December 31, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

PEOPLE everywhere use the arts to escape from the oppressive realities of their lives, but for director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, escapism became a lifelong obsession fueling his greatest artistic achievements.

Born in 1918 as Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, he removed any suggestion of Russian-Jewish identity from his name to launch a career performing and then creating all-American dances for ballet companies and Broadway. A bisexual whose most intense and long-lasting relationships were with men, he choreographed gorgeous male-female love duets and staged enduring musical theater paeans to hetero romance. And when his political opinions and affiliations brought him under potentially ruinous government scrutiny, he safeguarded his future by betraying friends and colleagues.

The story of this brilliant, conflicted escape artist is newly told by Amanda Vail in "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins." An experienced biographer, Vail had the advantage of access to Robbins' extensive private archives, so the book almost becomes the as-told-to project that she envisioned before Robbins' death in 1998. His voice is everywhere.

Other Robbins books give you the facts about the innumerable theater and ballet projects that make him a central figure in the history of 20th century theatrical dance. But Vail has a gift for storytelling, for context, that transforms the production credits and backstage anecdotes into tightly focused dramatic episodes in the life of a man always fiercely self-protective.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Jerome Robbins: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about choreographer Jerome Robbins misspelled the last name of biographer Amanda Vaill as Vail.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 14, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Jerome Robbins: A Dec. 31 Critic's Notebook about choreographer Jerome Robbins misspelled the last name of biographer Amanda Vaill as Vail.

A small example: In late 1953 or early '54, Robbins choreographed the battle between the toy soldiers and mice for George Balanchine's New York City Ballet "Nutcracker." Greg Lawrence doesn't say anything about the matter in his 2001 book "Dance With Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins." Deborah Jowitt mentions it in her 2004 book "Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance," but simply notes that "Robbins has never been given program credit for his contribution."

Only Vail tells us how much Robbins wanted that credit and how it was ultimately denied him by someone he loved: Balanchine's ex-wife and former dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq, who had been left the U.S. rights to the ballet in Balanchine's will. "Once again," Vail writes, "it was a case of 'who stands where, and with whom,' as Tanny had put it to Jerry back in 1951. Once again, the answer was 'George was here first'; credit would be given to Jerry 'over my dead body.' " Robbins was reportedly "devastated."

Vail provides detailed accounts of the creation of Robbins' Broadway shows, the most celebrated being "West Side Story" (1957) and "Fiddler on the Roof" (1964). All his ballets, including the masterworks "Fancy Free" (1944) and "Dances at a Gathering" (1969), also are documented meticulously. In the process, we gain new insights not only about Robbins but also about such cultural icons as director George Abbott, composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Mikhail Fokine, singer Ethel Merman and, of course, Balanchine -- father figure and the King Kong of classicism, an inescapably intimidating presence in Robbins' life. Vail writes that when Robbins and Twyla Tharp were collaborating on a ballet titled "Brahms/Handel" in 1984, Tharp had a dream in which the two of them saw what Tharp described as a huge snake " 'in a filthy sewage-ridden murk partially covered by some of the oldest floorboards in theatrical history.' When she told Jerry about the dream, over dinner, she asked him if he knew what the monster signified.

" 'Sure,' said Jerry. 'George.' "

Beyond recording professional triumphs -- and a few catastrophes, such as Robbins being fired from the film of "West Side Story" in midproduction -- Vail also has love stories to tell, some of them tantalizing (the two-year affair with actor Montgomery Clift), others heartbreaking, such as the 15-year relationship between Robbins and photographer Jesse Gerstein. (Their ashes are scattered outside Robbins' beach house in Bridgehampton.) Throughout, Vail stays nonjudgmental, even when Robbins is two- and three-timing various lovers on more than one continent, and she becomes his advocate in reporting the infamous tirades that made so many dancers fear and even hate him.

Ultimately, Robbins attained a hard-won self-acceptance. He reconnected with his Russian-Jewish heritage in "Fiddler on the Roof" and the ballet "Dybbuk," and he also lived openly as a homosexual -- though, like Alvin Ailey and a number of other master choreographers, he never overly expressed that part of his nature in his dances. He even tried to confront his guilt over his 1953 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and the seven people he named who supposedly recruited him for the Communist Party. But he never escaped the taint of that act and, for all her sympathy, Vail leaves him stranded and exposed in his fear.

It's easy to make Robbins the prototype of the eternally tormented artist, but there were too many triumphs and lovers for that. Lawrence emphasizes how punishing he could be in every kind of relationship. Jowitt sees his creative output as the core of his life. And now Vail lets the weight of her research and Robbins' own words charm us into granting the man one last escape -- from the belief that any of it could have been different.

*

lewis.segal@latimes.com

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