In the world of dance, Jerome Robbins was almost as feared and despised as he was beloved and admired. Charismatic and tyrannical, he was a brilliant perfectionist fueled by nervous energy and plagued by self-doubt. His creative genius was often short-circuited by his infamous temper and a ruthless - some say sadistic - streak that he most often vented on those trying hardest to please him. Yet he could be exceptionally generous to his friends and was known for an adventurous sense of fun and an infectious giggle.
Few high-profile figures in the dance world were more complex. But one thing was seldom disputed: The man had stunning artistic vision, and he created an extraordinary canon of some of the most memorable, influential dances ever choreographed.
Deborah Jowitt's new "Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance" is a superb critical biography that vibrantly captures both his conflicted personal life and his remarkable creative productivity. Principal dance critic of "The Village Voice" since 1967, Jowitt had unrestricted access to Robbins's huge archives of papers, diaries, letters, photographs and tapes, and it shows in the richness and depth of detail with which she delves into his life.
Jowitt breezes fairly quickly through Robbins's childhood, but she infuses the account of the choreographer's early years with colorful anecdotes and keen psychological perception. Born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918, Robbins was raised by his Russian Jewish immigrant parents with a fierce work ethic. Obedience was encouraged with periodic threats to send Robbins to the orphanage if he didn't behave.
However, they also taught him to honor culture as part of the American dream, and young Jerry not only studied dance (inspired by his older, talented sister Sonia), but violin and piano, performing and composing at a precociously young age. He displayed a vivid theatrical flair, frequently acting out scenes from favorite silent movies and entertaining his family with puppet shows. This theatrical bent may have been fostered in part by the numerous domestic dramas at home, which Robbins described in his own writings as "fierce arguments, threats of death, suicide, abandonment, murder & the opposite: laughter, singing, dancing, being crazy, singing fake operas & dancing to records."
Early on, it was clear to Robbins's parents that he was not cut out to run the family corset company. After a year at New York University, which he hated, he dived into dance and theater, joining a company called Dance Center run by Sandor Gluck. Robbins performed, studied ballet, and rubbed shoulders with those in the emerging modern dance scene. He also enrolled in a composition class taught by the legendary Besse Schonberg. In the summers, he performed at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos, where he put on cabaret productions with the likes of Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, and Herbert Ross. There Robbins learned the importance of timing and how to pick up and put together material quickly, often improvisationally.
Jowitt comprehensively chronicles his tumultuous and prolific professional life as an artistic visionary who changed the course of musical theater and ballet. From 1944 to 1955, Robbins choreographed one musical and one or two ballets every year. Moving back and forth between the two mediums helped feed him both artistically and financially - Broadway work subsidized his ballets.
There were aesthetic characteristics, however, that stayed true no matter the medium. For example, she writes, "One of the hallmarks of Jerome Robbins' work was the illusion of community he built onstage." Jowitt illumines how Robbins valued that sense of people relating to one another, from the rakish sailors of his first ballet, "Fancy Free," to the colorful villagers of "Fiddler on the Roof" or the wedding party of "Les Noces."
Jowitt's critical examinations of his remarkable range - from lighthearted Broadway ditties to powerful classics of music theater, such as "West Side Story," to ambitious ballets, both comic and serious, created primarily for New York City Ballet - are enlivened by memorable backstage anecdotes. In fact, "Jerome Robbins" is most engaging when Jowitt is dealing with popular, familiar material, such as the account of a meeting between Robbins and Bernstein regarding "Fancy Free," in which the composer shows the choreographer a tune for the ballet he'd jotted down earlier on a napkin at the Russian Tea Room.
The book also illumines Robbins the man, thoughtfully examining his conflicted bisexuality, his ambivalence over his Jewish heritage, his intensely admiring yet often competitive relationship with George Balanchine, and his dishonorable behavior betraying friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
This is a vivid flesh-and-blood portrait. Jowitt has written an indispensible guide to understanding and appreciating the man generally considered America's finest native-born choreographer.
• Karen Campbell is a freelance writer in Boston.