Beyond Rumors & Legends: What Jerome Robbins Was Really Like In Rehearsal
In a windowless subterranean studio under the New York State Theater, I pulled back an imaginary arrow and let it fly.
"Good!" said ballet master Tommy Abbott. "I think you're ready. Tomorrow you rehearse with Mr. Robbins."
I was slated to play Cupid in Jerome Robbins' compilation of fairy tales called Mother Goose. It was a role given to the tiniest boy who could follow directions at the School of American Ballet. In 1976, that was me.
The following day, I reported to a much larger windowless studio on the fifth floor known as the main hall. The room was bristling with excitement and nervousness. About half of the dancers from New York City Ballet were on hand, plus a coterie of bustling ballet masters and Mr. Robbins. Tommy tucked me and two other boys in a corner. My first rehearsal with the legendary choreographer was underway.
Even a 10-year-old can sense true benevolence and feigned benevolence. Jerry had the latter. It wasn't that he wasn't helpful or encouraging, just begrudgingly so. One sensed his tolerance was as thin as spring ice. Soon, pops of ire and annoyance filled the room and attention shifted to intensified focus. I started to wonder if Mr. Robbins needed one of my arrows.
When I finally made my entrance, Jerry stopped the pianist and headed towards me. Tommy hovered nervously, nodding constantly.
"Not bad. What's your name?"
"Okay, Paul, good. Remember, you're an Indian scout moving through the forest trying not to make a sound." As he said this, he demonstrated his words perfectly. I wanted to ask if the scout was an American Indian or an Indian from India, but decided to figure it out later. I also briefly considered correcting him on my name, but thought better of that, too. I was "Paul" to Jerry for the next two decades.
"When you step, you want to be very careful not to break any twigs that might be underfoot. Does that make sense?"
It did. The image was so clear, so perfect, so completely defining of exactly how I would step in my imaginary forest. In that moment, at age 10, I found one of the greatest coaches I would ever work with.
Jerome Robbins rehearsing Other Dances with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo by Martha Swope/The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
My stories with Jerry took place during the last 22 years of his life. 2018 would have marked his 100th birthday, and much of the world is celebrating his tremendous influence. Robbins programs, tributes and festivals are taking place in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Miami, Paris and New York City.
Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz was born in Manhattan on October 11, 1918. The Rabinowitz family later moved to Weehawken, New Jersey, when Jerry's father and uncle opened the Comfort Corset Company. Jerry determined at a young age that the "confines" of his family's business were too much for him. After a year of college, he found dance and theater through his sister and a summer arts camp, and he began to perform and to choreograph.
It wasn't long before he was bounding from one hit to another, creating artistic successes and box-office gold up and down Broadway. Starting with the mold-shattering Fancy Free in 1944, his creations filled seats and repertoires of the most respected ballet companies. He worked with the greatest artists and collaborators and alongside his idol, George Balanchine. He won Tony Awards, Oscars, accolades and honors, and yet demons and self-doubt characterized much of his existence.
His life was a tapestry of both triumphs and torture. Accepting his sexuality was a near lifelong challenge. He agonized over the demise of others, like his muse, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and the many dear friends who died during the AIDS epidemic. He constantly questioned his work, doubting its merit and revising frequently. His excessive demands during the rehearsal process frustrated and angered collaborators, creating tempestuous relationships.
In 1953, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about a brief Communist-party membership. He willingly admitted to his youthful stint as a Communist, and, threatened with potential blacklisting and exposure of his homosexuality, he agreed to name other Communist sympathizers. Robbins carried remorse over the incident for the rest of his life.
Rehearsing In The Night with Monique Loudières at Paris Opéra Ballet in 1989
Life in the rehearsal studio, however, was a different world. This is where I knew Jerry. A decade after my debut as Cupid, I was an NYCB corps member cast in the title role of Balanchine's Prodigal Son. Though I was working with Jerry frequently at this point, Prodigal was the first major role he coached me in. (Jerry was NYCB's first Prodigal in 1950, having learned the role from Balanchine himself.)
Every day for a week, we worked together. On our first day, Jerry asked me to make my entrance. I heard a familiar whistle. Instead of clapping his hands to halt the music, Jerry always let out a high-pitched whistle, which left us feeling a bit like errant puppies.
"So what did you have for breakfast this morning?" he asked.
"An Egg McMuffin." Hearing the words come out of my mouth deepened my regret, but I spoke the truth.
With rising anger Jerry shouted, "Not you. The character. What did the Prodigal eat? What time did he wake up? What time does your father wake up on most days and what time did he wake up today? Why is he up earlier than usual?"
He continued to pepper me with questions about the rumors my friends and I had heard about the Siren who lived in the land beyond, and, in the end, he reminded me never to walk into the studio again without having done my research for a role.
Jerry was a coach like no other. He demonstrated with articulation that defied age. In his later years, the legs did less but the eyes did more. His timing was impeccable and indisputable.
In 1984, with the help of original cast member Wilma Curley, Jerry revived Moves, an experimental work originally created for Jerome Robbins' Ballets: U.S.A. in 1959. Moves was performed without music, relying solely on the stomps, slaps and footsteps of the cast to create meter.
Jerry would reiterate the length of each silence, encouraging us to find a duration that would make the audience and even fellow cast members uncomfortable. With the right pause, the next movement startled. He granted us license to read the environment, suggesting each performance might allow for longer or shorter pauses. After every show, he weighed in. "Did you hear the coughing? Too slow, baby."
The stories of Jerry's anger are legendary. I stood by while he berated many dancers, ballet masters and pianists. The ire seemed to envelop and fuel him without any realization that a line was about to be crossed.
But with Jerry, it was always about the work and making the work as good as it could possibly be. It wasn't personal. His standard was so very high and we were part of achieving that standard. Though patience was tested, I found his process hugely rewarding. Meeting his standard or a shared standard was an apex of artistry, athleticism and even intellect.
Once, after a particularly grueling rehearsal with a young soloist in the company, Jerry left the room. The dancer burst into tears. Moments later I was in the hall with Jerry as she turned the corner, still sobbing. Jerry looked at her and asked with genuine concern, "Oh, honey, what happened?" He approached her with a hug, wanting to help her cope with whatever circumstance may have caused such hurt. He couldn't connect the dots to his own behavior minutes ago.
Later, during a difficult rehearsal of the Spring section of The Four Seasons, I accidentally kicked my partner in the foot and caused a sprain. Once sidelined, I apologized and she responded, "Oh no, thank you. This is so much better than having to continue that rehearsal."
Balanchine and Robbins working on 1972's Pulcinella at NYCB. Photo by Martha Swope/The New York Library for the Performing Arts
Wendy Whelan and I worked for almost two years on his final ballet, Brandenburg. We were asked to remember versions A, B, C and D, with each letter having a numbered version as well: A1, A2, A3, B1, et cetera. As he doubted and changed course time and time again, we sensed his lack of confidence in his own craft, unsure of his final act. Moments after the curtain descended, he was onstage making more changes.
It would be unfair and incorrect to characterize Jerry purely as a taskmaster or a whip-cracker. Yes, he was demanding, but his compliments were real and carried great weight. He nurtured many and helped those he worked with find their best selves.
He had the unique ability to become kid-like in the studio, giggling with others and often laughing robustly at his own jokes. He was certainly his own best audience for The Concert. How many times had he seen those gags and yet fresh, spontaneous laughter erupted from him as if it was a first telling.
He also loved dogs. We always kept a supply on hand during rehearsals and when things got rough, the studio door was opened just enough to let a tail-wagging foil bound into the rehearsal room. Jerry was momentarily transformed. Paws, kisses and a whole new mood.
I remember many words, many moments, his belief in my ability and even his understanding of my misses. We didn't have a friendship— few dancers did—but the respect was mutual and earned.
Opus 19/The Dreamer was the work that brought us into the studio together more than any other. I had seen the premiere with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride not long after my debut as Cupid in Mother Goose. I've heard Misha say he thought the work held elements of Jerry's own existence, with a protagonist haunted by demons or ghosts from his past.
Jerry pushed me harder in Opus than in any other ballet. He seemed to demand inhuman effort.
I initially learned the work from ballet master Bart Cook. My first rehearsal with Jerry was like an audition. He sat in the front of the room and watched without interruption or emotion before rising to say I wasn't ready.
As he started to leave, I called him back and asked for another chance. No one really called Jerry back and told him to sit down, but I saw an essential if not career-defining opportunity about to disappear forever.
Though my second shot was met with approval, each subsequent performance was held to his high standard, with some hitting the mark and some less successful. I didn't always get it right, but on one occasion Jerry came backstage with tears on his cheeks. He didn't say a word. He simply pulled my head forward to place a kiss on my forehead. A greater compliment I've never known.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.