San Francisco Ballet celebrates Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins – © Jesse Gerstein – courtesy Jerome Robbins Foundation

The year 1918 was a particularly special one for American music and dance, for it produced two exceptional talents – Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Individually they left their mark – not only on the American cultural scene, but internationally as well – and together they produced a partnership which was to become one of the most illustrious of the 20th century.

In this fifth program of its current season, San Francisco Ballet marks the centennials, and celebrates the creative genius of both Bernstein and Robbins, with a program devoted to works by this exceptionally gifted and highly creative choreographer, and includes the ballet which marks the first collaboration between himself and the brilliant composer Leonard Bernstein.

Mikhail Baryshnikov described Jerome Robbins as “…. an extraordinary man who changed the direction of twentieth-century musical theater …. a haunted perfectionist …. a charismatic and complex character”. Robbins was all of these, and also someone who never seemed to quite accept who or what he was, or even recognize the depth of his own genius. Nevertheless he left the world a priceless legacy – one unsurpassed in the combined realms of ballet and Broadway.

This San Francisco Ballet program features four of Jerome Robbins’ works, opening with Opus 19/The Dreamer. The ballet takes its name from the music to which he set it – Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 1 opus 19 – and the almost dreamlike air created by its constantly changing shapes and patterns, through which a pensive and introspective dancer searches for his spiritual counterpart.

A work of great beauty – created on Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride at New York City Ballet – it drifts from its almost ethereal beginnings to a nightmarish episode, before reverting once more to serenity. The gentle, hauntingly lovely, yet at times spirited Prokofiev concerto provides a perfect backdrop for Robbins’ distinctive style of choreography.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins’ ‘The Cage’ – © Erik Tomasson

Female dominance must have been high in Jerome Robbins’ mind when he created The Cage. Originally intended to be a mythological piece about a tribe of Amazons, the work took another course when the choreographer developed a fascination for insects and the animal world, and the way in which creatures moved and used their bodies. So the tribe of Amazons was replaced by a colony of insects ruled by a matriarchal figure, the Queen, whose daughter, the Novice, is trained to kill any male who dares to infiltrate the colony’s environs. The first such intruder is rapidly disposed of, but the Novice forms a brief and tender relationship with the second, before the tribe descends on him and his fate, too, is sealed.

For the score, Robbins chose Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra – a piece by which he was apparently mesmerized – describing it as “terribly driven, coerced, compelled”, which lent itself well to the scenario for The Cage which he was building in his mind.

Frances Chung and Angelo Greco in Robbins’ ‘Other Dances’ – © Erik Tomasson

Jerome Robbins adored the music of Frédéric Chopin – as we know from his Dances at a Gathering, In the Night and The Concert – and in Other Dances, the third work on this program, he once more uses the music of the Polish master of the waltz and mazurka to pay homage to the folk culture of his own Polish and Russian heritage. Other Dances was choreographed for a gala benefit for the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and created on two of the most luminous of Russian emigrés gracing the international stage at that time – Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova who described Jerome Robbins as “the most romantic of all the classical choreographers”.

Other Dances is a joyful work – graceful, tender, elegant and lyrical, at times sparkling, and yes technically challenging, but – with every step and every note in perfect harmony – it’s a delight.

During the wartime years of the 1940s, “sailors were rife in New York” said Robbins, and on his way to and from the Metropolitan Opera, wrote Deborah Jowitt in her biography of Jerome Robbins, “he noticed that they often sauntered along in threes, full of bravado, grasping at pleasure before being shipped out to possible death.” This was the inspiration for the final work in this program, Fancy Free – Robbins bringing Broadway to the ballet. His scenario was simple – three sailors out on the town for an evening of fun, and two girls whom they meet in a bar and persuade to join them for their brief hours of shore leave. Their tight uniforms, caps at angles, their jaunty walk – all of these provided the perfect picture for Robbins to include in his ballet.

In his search for a composer for the score, he was taken by a friend – stage designer Oliver Smith, who would ultimately be the designer of the ballet – to meet the then-unknown Leonard Bernstein. When he showed Bernstein his scenario, the composer sang a tune that he’d sketched out that very day on a restaurant napkin, and, as he says: “Jerry went through the ceiling”. The partnership was born, one which would produce not only Fancy Free, but four other works, including the spectacularly successful West Side Story – and, like West Side Story, Fancy Free made it to the silver screen as well, as a full-blown musical, under the title On the Town.

Jerome Robbins – © Didier Olivre

San Francisco Ballet celebrates Jerome Robbins at the War Memorial Opera house from March 20th to 25th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.

Sources of information:

San Francisco Ballet

Jerome Robbins Foundation

Jerome Robbins – His Life, His Theater, His Dance by Deborah Jowitt

PBS American Masters series – Something to Dance About

Somewhere – The Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill

New York City Ballet


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