Jerome Robbins on DVD

April 14, 2009

PBS documentary reveals

the choreographer’s many faces


By Wendy Perron


Photo: ©Martha Swope, Courtesy PBS. Jerome Robbins works with Suzanne Farrell (left) and Patricia McBride (right).


He revolutionized musical theater. He made ballets of unearthly beauty, sinister darkness, or laugh-out-loud humor. His creative output was staggering, and his inner turmoil legend.


Jerome Robbins is finally being honored with an American Masters documentary. Several years in the making, “Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About,” produced and directed by Judy Kinberg, is now available on DVD from Kultur Films. It’s the portrait of a dancer who became one of the greatest choreographers of all time, and criss-crossed ballet, Broadway, and Hollywood. He gave us the musicals West Side Story, Gypsy, Peter Pan, The King and I, and Fiddler on the Roof. He gave us Fancy Free, Dances at a Gathering, Afternoon of a Faun, The Cage, and Glass Pieces. “Something to Dance About” shows terrific moments from all of these, and more.

Because Robbins was so determined to get every scene, every gesture, right, he was famously hard on dancers (see “Capturing the Heart,” May, 2008). Helen Gallagher says, “I loved working with him. But he wanted it the way he wanted it. If you weren’t using everything you had to get there, he would strip you naked practically, pull the flesh right off your bones, and then rebuild you.” Eliot Feld describes the many versions one had to memorize to accommodate Robbins’ indecisiveness. Peter Martins admitted, “Working with Jerry drove me crazy.” (Martins also has some revealing things to say about the relationship between Robbins and Balanchine.)

There are some juicy surprises. The idea to update Romeo and Juliet (which was the seed for West Side Story) came from helping his lover, a struggling actor, prepare the role of Romeo in the Shakespeare play. His actor boyfriend happened to be Hollywood star Montgomery Clift. And Steven Sondheim tells us that it took three years of peddling the historic West Side Story—“Nobody wanted it.” Critic Frank Rich says about West Side Story, “As if for the first time, something modern and new was crashing into the commercial Broadway world.”

Sadness and guilt loom large in Robbins’ life. The sadness of having a mother who pretended to want to give him away when he didn’t behave; the sadness of being bisexual and never settling down to one person or even one gender; the sadness of being from an immigrant culture and never feeling like he fit in. But the most debilitating sadness was when he failed as a choreographer. After The Dybbuk’s poor reception at New York City Ballet in 1974, he spiraled into a suicidal depression. He recovered by working through it—and eventually choreographed the beautiful Other Dances (1976) for Baryshnikov and Makarova.

The guilt was because he named names during the McCarthy “witch hunt” hearings of the 1950s, thus damaging some colleagues’ careers. He had resisted the House Un-American Activities Committee for three years and finally gave in, mostly because Ed Sullivan (a right-wing columnist as well as a popular TV host) threatened to out him as a gay man. Robbins was afraid—justifiably so—that it would ruin his career if he didn’t comply.


The sensitive narrative was written by Amanda Vaill, author of the psychologically probing biography Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins. By the time Rose Tobias Shaw, who almost married Robbins but was clearly no rival to Monty Clift, says, “He had the most beautiful brown eyes, crying/laughing eyes,” you feel you know the man. Also helping to acquaint us with that complex person are interviews with many eloquent dancers. They include Baryshnikov, Eliot Feld, Jacques d’Amboise, Deborah Jowitt, Sondra Lee, and of course Robbins himself, both in interviews and in his diaries.


The boy who at 21 wrote in his diary, “I will live to dance,” astonished the world over and over again with his inventiveness. But more than that, he knew how to reach the human soul through dance. —Wendy Perron