DM Recommends: The Long Way Home

July 24, 2007

Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins

by Amanda Vaill. New York: Broadway Books, 2006.

675 pages. Illustrated. $40

Children of the baby boom knew the work of Jerome Robbins before they knew his name. All one had to do in those days was see the latest movie musical and there was a good chance you’d see his work. In the movie The King and I, for instance, there was “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a folk ballet as precise as classical Thai sculpture, wood-cut and gold-leafed, sprung suddenly to life. Its refrain—“Run Eliza run, run from Simon”—was tattooed on the eye and ear, unforgettably, by Robbins. In West Side Story, decades before rap and hip hop went mainstream, Robbins created the Jets and the Sharks, sexy dancing gangs—and what dancing!—breathtaking balletic leaps a la seconde, slow-boiling beatnik stabs and shrugs. Not long ago, when the Gap used this same choreography in its television ads, the kinetic kick was as contemporary as ever. Gypsy, Peter Pan, Fiddler on the Roof—whether one knew the name or not, Robbins was a player in the popular culture, a choreographer who reached and touched many lives. He was also, as Amanda Vaill shows in her new biography, Somewhere, The Life of Jerome Robbins, a gypsy himself, never emotionally settled. And a Peter Pan, never quite grown up. And a fiddler on the roof, reaching for beauty and waiting to fall.

Vaill’s is the third Robbins biography to be published since his death in 1998 at age 79. Greg Lawrence’s Dance with Demons came first in 2001; unauthorized, it is the liveliest of the books, brimming with smart, sharp commentary from colleagues. Deborah Jowitt’s Jerome Robbins, His Life, His Theater, His Dance came out in 2004, and it’s the most elegantly written of the three, with the deepest critical insights. The books of Jowitt and Vaill were both authorized by the Robbins Trust, with Jowitt focusing on the choreography and Vaill on the life. Vaill’s book, then, is more of a psychological journey, sensitive to echoes and allusions, and steadfastly empathetic.


Quoting liberally from the diaries and journals Robbins kept all of his life—full of his plans for self-improvement, his dreams (jotted down upon waking), and his fears—Vaill locates a sort of Rosebud motif in a song from West Side Story, “Somewhere,” which yearns for a place of peace and love. For Vaill, this yearning is the recurring Robbins theme, expressed literally in a musical like Fiddler and in the abstract in a ballet like Dances at a Gathering, and it begins in his childhood, when he was simply the son of Harry and Lena Rabinowitz, émigré Russian Jews.


It was the kind of first-generation childhood experienced by millions: the old country replete with its strange language, religion, traditions, and food set against the shiny American dream of homogenized success and pasteurized prettiness. Some souls could reconcile the two. Others, Robbins included, could not. He was ashamed of being Jewish, ashamed of not looking American, ashamed when he realized he was gay. And though his parents were always present, always protective, Robbins never felt they provided what he needed most: unconditional, unjudgmental love. One might say his personality type was Glass Half Empty.


And yet what a wonderful coming of age he had. Vaill brings to life Robbins’s salad days, the passionate years of apprenticeship with all manner of Manhattan theater artist; the summers at Camp Tamiment, putting on weekly shows with soon-to-be-stars like Danny Kaye and Imogene Coca; and the astonishing generosity this small, dark, comparatively untrained dancer received from headline artists and respected choreographers. He learned discipline and stagecraft in these years, and he earned the respect and sometimes love of his colleagues.


From his first New York premiere, 1944’s Fancy Free, a ballet for American Ballet Theatre made in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein, Robbins was golden. But that title aside, he would never be free. (When the raves for Fancy Free rolled in, Robbins’s one thought was, “Now I had enough money to start analysis.”) Vaill shows again and again that success—and for Robbins the success just kept coming, as did the money—never brought peace for very long. He feared he was a fraud, a mistrust knotted up with his complaint about his parents. And tied into that was his famous temper, turned on anyone who frustrated his ferocious need for control. And tangled up with that was the famous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) trial of 1953, where afraid for his own career he named the names of friends in the Communist Party, of which he’d been a vague member for a short time. For this fresh new shame, Vaill reveals, Robbins never forgave himself.


During this time, for NYCB, Robbins made a ballet about a colony of predatory females that webs up men and kills them. He called it The Cage. It is often viewed as an entomological take on the Wilis of Giselle, but one wonders if there isn’t a shadow subject: the HUAC’s marauding McCarthyites and their hunted victims. Finishing Somewhere, one can’t help feeling that Robbins himself was webbed up, caught “somewhere” between his incomparable mastery on Broadway and his quieter achievements in ballet, between his desire for men and his longing for marriage, between his American fame and his Jewish ancestry, and, sadly, between a lasting love for his art and no love for himself. Perhaps this is why Robbins always did best when he had a well-defined story—time and place, beginning, middle, and end. He didn’t have to know where he fit in.



Laura Jacobs, dance critic of
The New Criterion, is the author of Landscape with Moving Figures: A Decade in Dance, published by Dance & Movement Press last fall.