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Favorite Things: Robbins at 100

Ballet, Gesture, and the Vernacular

Jerome Robbins is a legendary dance artist—not least because he succeeded as a choreographer in two quite antithetical domains: the Broadway musical and classical ballet. One might conclude that he was an innovator of dance theater (as opposed to theater dance), yet this would not do justice to the hybridity of his work. Like Agnes De Mille he revolutionized the American musical by tapping into the savoir-faire of the professional concert dancer and making dance do the work of story. Yet, starting in the 1940s, he also undertook to update ballet by introducing vernacular dance vocabulary into the classical lexicon. While these two are related projects, they are also distinctly different. Robbins’s career was dual in more than one sense. He crossed over genres, but he also retranslated his accomplishments from one genre into the language of the other.

Ballet and musical comedy, far from interchangeable, remained separate, and the context for Robbins as ballet choreographer was primarily the New York City Ballet, dominated by George Balanchine. Of course, Balanchine also ventured into the vernacular, but his accomplishment is indisputably in the area of neoclassicism—the plotless ballet, quite the antithesis of both theater dance and dance theater.[1] Robbins’s output for NYCB in the 1970s is impressive and it is one of the important contributions of Jerome Robbins 100 (May 3-20, 2018) to put such a cross section of his work on view. Here, I am thinking of Dances at a Gathering (1969), In the Night (1970), Goldberg Variations (1971), Dybbuk (1974), In G Major (1975), Other Dances (1976), Opus 19/The Dreamer (1979), The Four Seasons (1979), as well as works such as Afternoon of a Faun (1953), Glass Pieces (1983), and Antique Epitaphs (1984).

The uneasy duality of Robbins’s career became apparent early on with Edwin Denby’s review of Robbins’s second ballet, Interplay, in 1945. “Robbins alone of our native choreographers has grasped at one stroke that the basis of ballet logic is a view of time and space as a closed entity. The time of a ballet is that specified by the musical architecture of its score and the space is that of the stage area as a static whole. These architectural frames of reference, so to speak, give to the mazes of a ballet its coherent and cumulative distinctness. And the formal distinctness in spacing and timing Interplay has in action are of serious ballet quality.” In this very distinctive critical writing, Denby praises Robbins’s instinct for formalism, a quality he sees inherent to ballet worth its salt, and goes on to explain Robbins’s challenge: “The intellectual vigor the clear focus of its over-all craftsmanship suggests. . . that Robbins means to be and can be more than a sure-fire Broadway entertainer, that he can be a serious American ballet choreographer.”[2] The critical challenge Denby poses Robbins is clear. Alongside the claims of formalism one notes those of nativism. A “native choreographer” must grasp, for Denby, the true logic of ballet—an inherently European form—as an “American ballet choreographer”. For Denby, the vernacular is only part of the story, and perhaps the somewhat troubling part. Americanness in ballet may to some degree be connected to a use of vernacular movement, yet, significantly, it is demonstrated through its formal grasp of the medium. What is important about ballet choreography is its ability to display national identity in formal terms. This, as one might guess, also involves a certain formalization of the vernacular itself. Such, I believe, was Denby’s point of view, and it is a line of thought that had existed in French ballet since the 1920s.

Interplay was part of the festival and the theme of play was foregrounded in it. Some critics have suggested that the title refers to the interplay between vernacular dance and ballet. Yet the sections as subtitled are about different kinds of play amongst a group of young people: Free Play, Horseplay, Byplay and Team Play. The subject itself is vernacular inasmuch as it reflects on contemporaneous American youthful mores (even if, from today’s perspective, it appears too white). Interplay was particularly striking for the way in which the jazz aspects of the vocabulary were highlighted in silhouette on the unlit apron and upstage before the scrim. In this way, a jazzy look and attitude took on an air of clandestine promiscuousness, suggesting the atmosphere of Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans in Streetcar Named Desire or Paul Cadmus’s erotic wartime paintings. Interplay came across as a period piece, but also suggests the stakes of Robbins’s burgeoning career after Fancy Free. But, what does it tell us now? If anything, I would say it shows a very limited concept of Americanness, particularly at a moment when we are faced with a virulent governmental anti-immigration stance, which is often the starting point—now is no exception—for rising authoritarianism. American nativism during World War II was a response to the folkish aspects of European fascism, but what could it represent to us today, as we confront the apparent disintegration of democracy? Interplay may show us that time has stood still, but it does not bring a critical dimension out of the past to counterbalance this sad fact.

We should probably count ourselves fortunate that Robbins did not heed Denby’s words in 1945. From the Broadway perspective, Robbins’s reach into popular culture through legitimate theater of the 1950s was prodigious. As a child growing up in fifties New York I remember the excitement over Peter Pan at the Winter Garden Theater, the musical where Mary Martin flew out over the audience as a cross-dressed Peter and Cyril Richard appeared in his “panto” routine as Captain Hook. Then, in 1957, West Side Story burst on the scene: the racial strife in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen transformed into a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story set to an unforgettable Leonard Bernstein score. It was not just the choreography, a “fusion of ballet, jazz and 1950s social dance idioms,” [3] that was groundbreaking, but the choreography’s function as mise en scène, conveying the substance of the narrative line. The West Side Story Suite Robbins later set on New York City Ballet (1995) is particularly valuable for allowing us to understand and appreciate how the choreography supported and even constituted the mise en scène, something the film does not convey. (It is good, too, that Peter Gennaro is now being credited in the program as co-choreographer). Yet I must admit having felt somewhat uncomfortable about the depiction of Puerto Rico in the “America” number, given the ongoing disaster of Hurricane Maria (no pun intended) and the lack of adequate government aid to the island.

The specially commissioned tribute to Robbins’s Broadway work, Something to Dance About, arranged by Warren Carlyle, seemed unfortunate. Robbins himself rejected the idea of such a medley, and one can see why he did so. Nothing is sufficiently developed in this format while the return to West Side Story within it is unnecessary and repetitive because the Company already has West Side Story Suite arranged by Robbins himself and beautifully danced (and sung!) by the Company.

Apart from this, Jerome Robbins 100 offered nineteen Robbins ballets for the concert stage, many of them not seen here in some time. These ballets look substantially different when viewed on their own as a freestanding repertoire. One is induced to compare these ballets amongst themselves, to reassess the relation of Broadway dance to classical ballet, to think about the ballets historically, and to think about how all these works fare today. The Centennial inevitably also invites us to compare Robbins with Balanchine who, it should be said, strongly influenced Robbins. Indeed, one can see certain ballets in dialogue with Balanchine and imagine both choreographers carefully eyeing each other’s works. In the midst of Robbins’s Goldberg Variations we come upon a quote of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, exactly at the moment when the Baroque is being evoked. And years later Balanchine quotes the athletic running of Interplay in the Rubies section of Jewels. On the basis of the entire festival I would conclude that Robbins lacked the visual complexity of Balanchine when dealing with the corps de ballet and, although Robbins was highly musical, his musicality was manifested in terms of the individual and the couple more than in the larger stage picture. For example, Robbins’s handling of the corps de ballet in The Goldberg Variations lacks the visual and musical complexity of Balanchine; the same can be said of Circus Polka (1972) and The Four Seasons (1979).

In the wake of the success of West Side Story, Robbins created the company Ballets: U.S.A. (1958), where dancers performed disenchanted youth in one of the early jazz-influenced ballets, N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz. Of course, Anna Sokolow had done this in 1952 with her Rooms, but Sokolow’s focus was on contemporary urban anxiety expressed in modern dance: her focus was neither exclusively on youth nor on jazz-influenced movement. The difference was that Robbins cornered the market on vernacular movement in concert dance. Robbins’s injection of ballet into the depiction of social discontent also capitalized on a contemporary concern about and fascination with the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency: the balletic scaffolding established a structural contrast that in itself did a lot of theatrical work around the idea of breaking rules. What better way to depict wayward youth than to make them ballet dancers talking back to ballet? After all, ballet dancers are also youth.

As with his Moves (1959)—not in the festival—a ballet done entirely to silence as a challenge to the necessity of music, Robbins was an idea man and almost each of his works contributed to rethinking what dance can do, how it can produce ideas on its own terms. These terms are as much historical as they are technical. In the framework of concert dance, however, this led him into a different sort of experimentation than that required for musical theater. Of course, working on the border line of dance and theater already points in this direction (something of a heresy in the consecrated temple of European classicism), but it raises, too, the question of how we value classical ballet and how it can be modernized or transformed into a language meaningful for today. This is a question that goes back to the interwar French avant-garde of the 1920s, a time and place in which Balanchine also played a role.

I see an unexpected continuity between what Lincoln Kirstein called Jean Cocteau’s obsession with “the rehabilitation of the commonplace” following his ballet Parade (1917) and Robbins’s interest in vernacular movement.[4] What struck me most in Fancy Free (1944), Robbins’s first ballet, was the pressure of the vernacular on ballet as the cartoonish delivery of gesture. Fancy Free is a tale of three sailors on leave and on the make in Manhattan at night. Consider the moment when the three, standing in a row facing the bar, backs to the audience, down their glasses in perfect synchrony. It is a gesture that could have been observed, but which, given its stylized form, was not selected at random. Denby wrote at the premiere: “Its [Fancy Free’s] sentiment of how people live in this country is completely intelligent and completely realistic.”[5] Did not Lincoln Kirstein also hint at something like this in his earlier search for “native style” for ballet “as developed in movies and musical comedy”?[6] But, how realistic is it, really? Was Robbins caricaturing the American sailor? Or were American sailors caricatures? Whatever the case may be, Americanness entered ballet as gesture whose sharp definition was then articulated by the dancing, although today it seems tacked onto a classical and technically oriented physicality.[7]

I am struck by how “American” identity in ballet at mid-century was conveyed by the cartoonish portrayal of character interspersed with pirouettes and other technical feats. This is the curious element of the “modern” ballet on a dividing line between mimetic gesture and technical lexicon. Perhaps T.S. Eliot had something similar in mind when he said that ballet “has, unconsciously, concerned itself with a permanent form.”[8] Eliot had the dancer’s traditional training in mind, but might not the challenge of ballet modernism have also been to endow contemporary gesture with a parallel permanence through its power of clichéd stylization? In such gesture the vernacular becomes conjugated with ballet formalism to create a high symbolic register, almost a symbolist theater of the sort Eliot thought could only be realized in poetic verse drama. Eliot was watching Massine who, like Robbins, had a strong mimetic bent. Paradoxically, form in this sense is reliant on mimesis and is not abstract, but it borrows force from the formal capacity of the classical dancer to isolate a gesture as though it were a dance step and to render it as inevitably contoured: hence, “permanent.” Or, if gesture is not permanent in the sense of traditional, it may be permanent in the sense of its self-contained suggestive capacity rendered by its formal economy.

Which brings us to Dybbuk (1974), a ballet, which took as pretext Sholem Ansky’s Yiddish play The Dybbuk, or, Between Two Worlds (1914). Notable here is a switch from American youth to Eastern European Jewishness of the early twentieth century. Perhaps stimulated by the success of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964) and its connection to his own family history, Robbins was experimenting with retranslation as he had earlier between West Side Story and Ballets: USA. But modern dancer Pearl Lang premiered a danced version of the play in 1951 (Kirstein turned down the project submitted by Robbins in 1954!).[9] Lang understood that the play could be translated into dance terms with a focus on scenes particularly suited to dance such as the possession of the heroine by the spirit of her dead lover.[10]  Robbins focused on the male chorus of Talmudic students and the effects of this section, strongly influenced by modern dance, are still haunting. Overall, however, the full ballet has difficulty transmitting the story of the play (it was also performed as The Dybbuk Variations to avoid this pitfall). Robbins’s biographer Deborah Jowitt argues that the choreographer’s difficulties with this piece reveal a deep conflict over narrative and abstraction, which is another way of saying that the two aspects of Robbins’s career were something short of complementary.[11] Perhaps another way of putting this is that, in Dybbuk, Robbins was out to create a symbolist dance-drama as the ultimate synthesis of his dual choreographic career. But, this synthesis depended upon an unspoken third term—modern dance—that had been given less attention than Broadway and ballet.

Striking in this case is that caricature disappears as the key to gesture, which now takes on a more symbolic, even mystical quality. Perhaps Robbins was counting on the power of Jewish folklore to secure the affective power of symbolism germane to mysticism. This was, in multiple cultural contexts, including the Jewish, the project of Martha Graham who had trained both Sokolow and Lang. Yet Robbins may have been too imbued with narrative (not to say commercial theater) to manage the full-fledged symbol, the strongest achievement of modern dance, even in its most theatrical phase during the 1940s. By turning to Jewish ritual, Robbins located a form of otherness (Jewish mysticism) in Yiddish Theater instead of the caricatured American model of movies and musical comedy. What is introduced in his work tackling Jewish vernacular expression is an approach more typical of modern dance as Jewish choreographers Anna Sokolow and Pearl Lang practiced it. Robbins must have been a careful and astute observer of modern dance. The Cage (1951) reaches for the integrity of Martha Graham’s Errand into the Maze (1947) but fails to attain it. Robbins lifted Graham’s fourth-position runs from her Diversion of Angels for Dances at a Gathering to marvelous effect: still, it is a theft. The main point, however, is that his symbolist drama was a gestural drama, one whose goal is to overread the meaning of gesture as movement in order to create a sensation of spiritual meaning. In Dybbuk, however, this was not fully achieved.

There are several other transmutations of the vernacular, the gestural, and the classical ballet suggested in Robbins’s works of the 1970s. The Goldberg Variations (1971) is the Robbins work for NYCB that most clearly takes on the challenge of ballet in its imperial underpinnings as an invention of the nineteenth century. Yet, while operating on Balanchine’s territory as the inheritor of the Petipa tradition, Robbins does something very unlike Balanchine (with the possible exception of Agon, where Balanchine does gesture toward pre-classical dance history). For, at the start of Goldberg Variations, Robbins introduces the historical dimension of ballet, which is to say the idea that ballet emerged from courtly social dance of the Renaissance (never mind that Robbins seems to make the Renaissance into the eighteenth century).[12] Robbins begins Goldberg Variations with the “theme”: a short duet marked as stylistically “archaic” through the use of imaginative courtly gesture and the breakdown of basic steps into positions. The duet emphasized the socially determined context of historical dance from which ballet emerged. This is followed by the invasion of contemporary dancers (Variations I) who explore gender relationships in unorthodox ways. We find here the clearest indications of same sex romantic relationships in Robbins’s work. Hence, the exploration of contemporary relationality is dependent upon the historical crux of ballet as originally a social interaction. In the second half—Variations II—the scene changes to a full-scale classical ballet with a large corps. Now we are in nineteenth-century classical ballet without narrative. Toward the end, this cohort dons historical costume elements just before exiting with courtly bows as the original “historical” couple reappears in contemporary garb. There is a sort of theoretical reversal operating here at the last moment, whereby the classical ballet becomes archaic and what was assumed to be archaic in ballet becomes contemporary. The vernacular, in other terms, becomes the historical vernacular of ballet itself. Robbins was thinking long and hard about the forms in which he worked and how to construct meaning from the materials themselves. It was 1971 and the interest in historical dance was emerging through reconstructions of Isadora Duncan by Annabelle Gamson and Baroque dance by Wendy Hilton.

Dances at a Gathering (1969) provides yet another permutation in the relation of ballet and the vernacular that undergirds so much of Robbins’s creation. Here, Chopin’s preludes, mazurkas and scherzos for solo piano provide the framework for another sort of neoclassicism inflected with folkdance and the idea of romantic social occasion. The setting is a mythical nineteenth-century Poland, where people dance together as a way to experience their relationships, for the most part spontaneous and without formality, other than that of dancing itself. Dancing does not restrict them; it frees them. It is a metaphor for all human interaction. What motivates dancing in Gathering is gathering itself, but the theatricality of this premise is all but erased in what appears to be a new form of bourgeois theater. The evocation of dance in a society as direct expression yields a series of solitary musings, intimate conversations, and a few playful interactions whose eloquence hangs on subtle musicality and understated technique as well as choreographic ingenuity. By emphasizing the Romantic tradition intercalated with folkdance steps (especially during mazurkas), and deploying theatrical understatement in exchanges between mature adults rather than the social acting out of insouciant youth, Robbins here achieves the tour de force of making ballet itself appear to be a form of vernacular expression. Is this not, somehow, what he was aiming at from the beginning?

There were spinoffs of Dances at a Gathering (such as In the Night and Other Dances), but the work to me most revealing of the poetics of Dancing at a Gathering—and one of Robbins’s major works—was A Suite of Dances (1994) for a male soloist (Joaquin De Luz), set to Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello. In this solo, as with Dances at a Gathering, we see the development of movement from a gestural impulse. What made this work stand out is that the solo also gave us the reduction of movement back to the original—frequently musical—impulse. In other terms, danced movement became re-envisioned gesture developed from the initial impulse to move, and—if one accepts this theatrical premise—choreography unfolds from music because of the human being who moves. This is substantially different from Balanchine’s many uses of musicality. The relationship of gesture to the vernacular comes full circle here: the source of the vernacular is seen to be a direct response to music in the body, prior to its capture of form. In the moments of reduction back to the impulse, at least in the performance I saw, a sense of caricature nevertheless reemerged as well. The audience tittered uneasily.

A number of the shorter works seem to be unfinished sketches, testing out ideas. For example, Opus 19/The Dreamer (1979) showed a very novel relation between a duet and the corps de ballet in which the corps was no longer decorative, but instead provided emotional background and texture. Yet there was no clear narrative to follow and the work seemed related to the dream ballet idea (as in the utopian finale of West Side Story). The corps appeared to be the psychological projection of the lead dancer (Taylor Stanley’s stunning work here enabled the concept to emerge). However, there was not the usual psychological premise and character of psychological ballet as pioneered by Antony Tudor. Instead the experiment was more formal and in direct relation to the Prokofiev score. The relation of psychology and musicality was experimented with in an abstract setting. Similarly, Glass Pieces (1983) seems to start where it ends, with a new idea introduced at the last moment: the cast in a gestural tableau, against the graph-like background in silhouette, transformed the dancers’ identity in a new way, begging further exploration.

Another common thread amongst some of these pieces is the return to dance history. Les Noces (1965) is a reimaging of the Nijinska/Stravinsky Noces (1923), but Irina Nijinska restaged it for the Royal Ballet in 1964 showing that the original is still inimitable. In G Major (1975) is a slight piece to a fascinating and mercurial Ravel score, and suggests Nijinska’s Le Train Bleu (1924), the original beach ballet. Afternoon of a Faun (1953) was a disappointment to me, but it is possible it needs far more careful direction. Here, the dancer’s warm up becomes the locus for Nijinsky’s Faun meeting and pursuing the Nymph with underplayed eroticism. Chase Finley was appropriately exploratory and sensual as the Faun, but Sterling Hyltin did not capture the tentativeness and innocence of the young ballerina: the moment leading up to the kiss and its aftermath lacked poignancy. (See the 1955 film with Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jacques d’Amboise that sets the standard for timing and suggestiveness in its performance). Finally, in Antique Epigraphs (1984), which takes the first-century Pompeii frescoes of dancers as its inspiration, I found the use of pointe shoes unfortunate. Not everything is ballet nor should look like ballet. Here Robbins fell into the trap of being a ballet choreographer.

What all of these works show is that, after the first period focused on American identity and vernacular dance, Robbins was seeking a theoretical justification for the vernacular in ballet and for ballet as the vernacular. Of course, when I say theoretical, I mean that his choreography was guided by his theoretical reflection. Part of this reflection was historical, as mentioned earlier, because it recalled the obsession with the everyday of avant-garde Ballets Russes productions in Paris between 1917 and 1929. The 1970s and 1980s were also a time of increasing historical consciousness around the past of dance, as witnessed with the emergence of historical reconstructions, and Robbins, like others, was thinking about dance history as a mine for new ideas. These two phases of Robbins’s work—cultural identity and dance history—together constitute a search for his own identity as an artist. The Robbins at 100 Festival shows us this.

Please click on the link to see Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jacques d'Amboise in Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun, 1955.


Mark Franko is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Dance at Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University. He was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a book on neoclassicism in French dance. 

[1] Robbins was engaged by NYCB as associate artistic director in 1949 and he co-directed the Company with Peter Martins after Balanchine’s death in 1983.

[2] Edwin Denby, “The Ballet: “Interplay”, New York Herald Tribune, (November 4, 1945): n.p.

[3] Liza Gennaro and Stacey Wolff, “Dance in Musical Theater” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater edited by Nadine George-Graves (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017): 158.

[4] Lincoln Kirstein, “The Diaghilev Period (1930),” in Ballet: Bias and Belief. Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writings by Lincoln Kirstein (New York: Dance Horizons, 1983): 13.

[5] Edwin Denby “Fancy Free” (April 19, 1944) in Dance Writings edited by Robert Cornfield and William Mackay (New York: Knopf, 1986): 218.

[6] Lincoln Kirstein, “Blast at Ballet. A Corrective for the American Audience (1937),” in Ballet: Bias and Belief. Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writings by Lincoln Kirstein (New York: Dance Horizons, 1983): 239.

[7] For other and earlier examples of Americanness in ballet, see Andrea Harris, Making Ballet American: Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[8] T.S. Eliot, “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” in Selected Essays 1917-1932 (first published 1932; London: Faber and Faber, 1999): 47.


[10] Lang, too, continued to rework this ballet and presented it as The Possessed in 1975 afterward turning it into a film.

[11] “Deborah Jowitt, Jerome Robbins. His life, His Theater, His Dance (New York: Simon and Shuster 2004): 421-422.

[12] See Mark Franko, The Dancing Body in Renaissance Choreography (c. 1416-1589. (Birmingham: Summa Publications, 1986).

Photo Credits:
Cover: Jerome Robbins and Dancers, 1961. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library.
Insert: Jerome Robbins, Fancy Free: Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library.


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