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.
It's the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and their season at New York City Center is going strong with more than 20 works—including world premieres and company premieres.
Ronald K. Brown, who just received a Dance Magazine Award, has made his seventh work for Ailey, The Call. It's a gorgeous pastiche of three different types of music: Bach, jazz by singer Mary Lou Williams and Malian music by Asase Yaa Entertainment Group.
If a teacher or choreographer has ever commented that your dancing looks stiff, the problem could be that you aren't breathing effectively. "When dancers aren't breathing, their shoulders are up and there's no length in their movement. They start to look like they're just waiting to get to the next thing," says Maria Bai, artistic director of Central Park Dance in New York.
It may seem like a no-brainer—of course you can't move without breathing. But beginning dancers often hold their breath because they are so focused on picking up choreography, says Sarah Skaggs, director of dance at Dickinson College. Even advanced dancers can benefit from focusing more on their breath. "Sometimes they are paying so much attention to what their limbs are doing that they forget about the lungs, the chest, the trunk. Breath is the last thing they're thinking about, but really it should be the first," says Skaggs. The more integrated your breathing is, the more relaxed and present you will feel.
I've been a fan of Jordan Isadore's for about a decade. His gorgeous, spine-contorting renditions of Christopher Williams' repertory are legendary, and for many years I had the privilege of making dances with him and producing his works through DanceNOW[NYC].
Over the last year or so, as he began winding down his performance career, Isadore began making odd, phenomenal objects: dribs of Labanotation scores rendered as hung mobiles, gorgeously crafted in stained glass and metal. The designs are stunning, imbued simultaneously with a hipster-nonsense contemporaneousness and reverence for dance history.
I spoke with Isadore about his retirement from the stage, and transition to crafting full time.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
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.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks: