Jerome Robbins Special: Fancy Free, In the Night, Glass Pieces, Afternoon, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and West Side Story.

Jerome Robbins ( October 11,1918- July 29,1998)

Robbins was an American choreographer famous for his contributions to Broadway prodcutions that have become legendary and also famous for his balletic works , many with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.

While Balanchine was a product of the Kirov Ballet and Diaghilev, Robbins story is typically American. Robbins was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz  in the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East  Side, a neighborhood populated by sucessive waves of immigrants who sought the American dream Not untypically, Robbins’ middle name was chosen to demonstrate the family patriotism at a time when they were so close to their immigrant roots. The Rabinowitz family lived in a large apartment house on East 97th Street. In the early 1920’s the family moved to Weehawken, New Jersey where father and uncle  opened the ‘Comfort Corset Company’.

The family had many show business and vaudeville connections. Robbins began college studying chemistry at New York University (NYU) but dropped out after a year for financial reasons and to pursue dance. He studied at the New Dance League, learning ballet with Ella Daganova, Antony Tudor and Eugene Loring; modern dance; Spanish dancing with the famed Helen Veola; folk dance with Yeichi Nimura; and dance composition with Bessie Schonberg.

I too studied choreography with Bessie Schonberg in the 1960’s, and by that time, I found her a bit tyrannical and anti-ballet. I cannot say that I was very fond of her, but I did use some of her techniques in teaching. For example, she would set a choreographic problem ,such as, being confined in a small space.You would have to create a series of movements that described the space you were in, but also movements related to one another in a dance-like sequence.

Another member of my class at that time was Meredith Monk, a most unconventional and revolutionary dancer.’Music’ to Bessie was however you wished to use whatever sound or no sound. Merry Monk vocalised in a distinctive way, often a sort of ‘Sprech-Stimmer’. She was to produce a recording of her vocalisations. Merry later formed a company, whose productions were unique, if controversial.  I last saw her company perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, probably the 1970’s. Merry was the most lovely person, living her own vision, and she introduced me to Greenwich Village, where I spent my first night on the floor of someone’s loft (1961).

I learned from Bessie Schonberg but at a personal cost .At that time, many of her technical classes were taught by Judith Dunn. Irene Novey was another member of my calss who hailed from the Henry Street Playhouse under Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais. I am trying to envision exactly how Bessie Schonberg and Jerome Robbins would have related, as Robbins work differed from the Bessie I knew.

Now for some Robbins work  which is representative:

We begin with a 1944 offering, ‘Fancy Free’:

Next we turn to a ballet offering, ‘In the Night’

Here the San Francisco Ballet performs snatches from ‘Glass Pieces’

The old School of American Ballet was on Broadway and 83rd. You had to walk downstairs into the studios, and there were bays of windows; the sun would stream in in the afternoon. The story goes that [Jerome Robbins] walked by one of the studios and saw Eddie Villella sleeping in the sun.”

-Bart Cook, Stager

The orignal ‘Afternoon’ was created by Nijinsky for Diaghilev. This is Jerome Robbins version.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life among the Lowly’ (1852) was one of the most powerful propaganda weapons for the Abolishionist cause  fighting slavery in the American Civil War. Anna, tutor to the King of Siam’s children in ‘The King and I’, tries- in this play within a play- to turn the King’s attention to the evils of slavery. ‘The small house of Uncle Thomas’ became one of Robbins most celebrated compositions:

Finally, the choreography from West Side Story-a snippet-another legacy of the Robbins/Bernstein relationship.

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