All the Right Moves

Jerome Robbins in 1979 and during rehearsal in 1946
Jerome Robbins in 1979 and during rehearsal in 1946 (Fred Sweets / The Washington Post)
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff
Sunday, November 26, 2006


The Life of Jerome Robbins

By Amanda Vaill

Broadway . 675 pp. $40

Ingenious choreographer and stage director, outstanding character dancer, infallible show doctor, generous philanthropist for the performing arts, Jerome Robbins (1918-98) was a giant of American theater. And of world theater, too: During his lifetime, kabuki actors as well as ballerinas and Broadway gypsies were inspired by his works. His direction endowed performers with a seamlessness that was a big part of what made them great; they landed on stage complete and shining. Robbins's art spoke for itself to audiences who couldn't help listening.

That time now seems as remote as Periclean Athens. Amanda Vaill's massive and magnetic new Robbins biography, Somewhere (a reference to a song in "West Side Story"), spills nearly every bean about the choreographer's private life that he had always tried so hard to hoard.

While examining the gestation and context for each of his finished works, Vaill chronicles the epiphanies and emotions that she believes defined Robbins's psyche from boyhood on: his ambivalence toward his Judaism; his notorious 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activites Committee when he named friends; his I-must-be-right! rages; his unproduced ideas for shows and dances; his lasting friendships; his psychoanalysts; his cherished dogs; his drug suppliers; his backstage influence on his idol, George Balanchine (whom Robbins persuaded to hire Mikhail Baryshnikov and to produce "Les Sylphides" as an abstract ballet ); his subconscious impulse to murder Balanchine; his known lovers; his participation in group sex. Vaill even documents Robbins's many heterosexual and homosexual flirtations, among them with the novelist Edna O'Brien, who was introduced to him by the author Robert Graves, a friend whose spirit Vaill believes to be palpable in Robbins's ballet for "eight White Goddesses," which he titled "Antique Epigraphs."

Drawing extensively on Robbins's own 350-linear-foot archive of diaries, letters, scenarios, accounts of his dreams and those of his friends (despite his dread of personal exposure, he was clearly expecting a biography of this nature after his death), Vaill has created a page-turner. Using narrative skills honed at Esquire and other leading magazines and in a previous double biography of 1920s' socialites Gerald and Sara Murphy, she conveys the impression of having provided everything there is to know about the choreographer. (Everything, that is, but an explanation of how, given his sexual recklessness, he managed to escape contracting AIDS.)

Vaill is a native New Yorker who, growing up, used to see Robbins walking around her neighborhood and who was evidently part of the New York City Ballet audience toward the latter stages of his career there. She has sufficient knowledge of the Robbins repertory and has conducted enough interviews to convince a reader who doesn't know NYCB's history that her assessments of the company's past are judicious. Her picture of NYCB is skewed to make Robbins heroic and to cut Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein down to size, but, as Robbins's biographer, Vaill certainly has that prerogative. In places, she writes as if she knew Robbins personally, even intimately. ("The dogs were important members of Jerry's family -- he related to all dogs, as he did to children, wonderfully, because like children they were vulnerable and without guile.") This contributes to the book's passion, its engaging, novelistic sweep.

However, I wouldn't gulp down the biography as the last word on this subject without consulting other histories. Vaill makes a number of unfortunate mistakes in the dance material, especially with regard to Balanchine's works, and her accounts of ballet company politics are colored by Robbins's resentments and suppositions, many of which the author adopts.

More persuasive is her reading of the choreographer's affection for the ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, an intensely private individual with whom he maintained a four-decade-long romance that was often thwarted and possibly unconsummated. She gave Vaill complete access to her story, which Vaill bolsters with excerpts from Le Clercq's letters to Robbins and the carbon copies or drafts he saved of his to her.

Sensational as many readers may find Somewhere, some of its revelations have been in print before. This is the third weighty Robbins biography to have been published since 2001: The other two, by Greg Lawrence and Deborah Jowitt, have different perspectives and are worth consulting, Jowitt's especially. Christine Conrad, the woman with whom Robbins was living when he made his masterpiece, "Dances at a Gathering," has also published a book about him. Given the extent of Robbins's personal archive, we shouldn't be surprised one day to see his complete journals and letters between covers. One hopes that a few of the readers for these revelations will be moved to take a look at his ballets -- indeed, that his ballets will still be danced and his shows still be revived. But maybe it won't make any difference to his fame if they aren't. "I like theater -- the theater of my life," Vaill quotes him as writing. If that's what you're after, these books will explain everything to you.

Still, it's useful to remember that Jerome Robbins was a linear thinker and micromanager whose ideal was the kind of art produced by Balanchine, Bach and Mozart -- men who didn't have to dominate their muses, only to relax and receive them. Sometimes, Robbins lucked into that state as well. "It came out of me like automatic writing," he wrote of his ballet "In Memory Of. . . ." "The completed work stood outside my own experience of it." As Vaill writes, it was Robbins at his best. ยท

Mindy Aloff is the author of the recently published "Dance Anecdotes."

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