I really hate giving interviews," said Jerome Robbins. "I can't sleep nights after I've done an interview. I keep thinking, why did I say this? Why didn't I leave out? I have said that instead?"
But Robbins, the prolific choreographer and master of all theatrical trades, despite a backstage reputation for crankiness, was hardly at a loss for words and seemed in an irrepressibly sunny mood. Other people associated with the New York City Ballet remarked that he'd been on a euphoric "high" throughout the troupe's Kennedy Center engagement, which ends tonight.
Perhaps the benevolence was a reflection of his pleasure in the audience reception of his newest ballet for NYCB, "The Four Seasons," a vivacious allegory in the manner of 19th-century opera ballets set to music by Giuseppe Verdi. It was a conspicuous hit with the public when introduced here for the first time the week before last.
And perhaps another cause of Robbins' glow was his creation of a beguiling new vehicle for dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride to a piano waltz by Chopin, the one world premiere on the special White House program honoring Baryshnikov last Sunday.
It has been 10 years since Robbins returned from a multifaceted career in the theater -- leaving in his path such durables as "West Side Story." "Fiddler on the Roof," and "Funny Girl," along with a slew of achievements in dance, opera, television, movies and the spoken stage -- to the exclusive fold of the New York City Ballet, once again to share creative honors with his longtime idol, George Balanchine.
It was a fecund decade for Robbins, resulting in such stalwarts of the current NYCB repertory as "Dances at a Gathering," "The Goldberg Variations," "An Evening's Waltzes," and "Other Dances," among a host of others.
Now he's 60, looking fitter than a rooftop fiddle, and even the subject of advancing years doesn't faze him. "It was traumatic for a few days," he says. "It was hard for me to think of myself as 60... but I did it! I once asked Mr. Balanchine how he felt about being over 70, and he told me, 'I always worried about what it was like on the other side of 70, and you know what, it's the same thing.' The hardest part for me is still having to do the same grinding barre work every day -- that's the most depressing part."
He's not ready to think about memoirs quite yet, though. "Maybe when I get a little less young."
Nor has he been experiencing, lately anyway, the "roots" syndrome that seems to be making the rounds for people of a certain age. "I went through that about three or four years ago, actually," he recalled. "It was going to be the basis of one of the theater pieces I had in mind at the time. Not a roots thing, really, but centering around family and cultural heritage."
He isn'r averse, however, to talking about early years. Reminded that some biographical accounts had him starting out as an actor in New York's famed Yiddish theater, he said:
"Well, I'd hardly say what I did was 'acting'; I had a two-word part. But it was my first job. I was involved with the Gluck Sandor-Felicia Sorel Dance Center, and when they were hired to choreograph this show -- it was "The Brothers Ashkenazi' -- I was hired along with them.
"Because I looked four years younger than I actually was, I was called in to play the part of the brothers' father as a child. I didn't really know Yiddish -- my parents only used the language when they didn't want me to understand something. But all I had to say was, 'yuh, Tata,' meaning 'yes, Father.' The whole thing was a wonderful experience for me, though. Those actors -- this was a Maurice Schwartz show -- were fantastic. When we stopped general rehearsals and went into dress rehearsal, the art of makeup was so extraordinary that I literally didn't recognize anyone.
"It was an enormously long show, I remember. I only had to appear in the first and third scenes of Act I, and that left me time to take a walk in the park, have lunch, go to the zoo, and still come back in plenty of time to make the opening of the second act. Oh yeah, we also had a strike. The actors played every night of the week and twice on Saturdays and Sundays, for which we got $10. So we struck, and they made it $15."
Robbins is just as Effusive about more recent events -- working with Mikhail Baryshnikov since his arrival in the ranks of the New York City Ballet, for instance. "It's just terrific, it's a pleasure working with him in every way, as a dancer, as an artist, as a gentleman, as a friend. Every dancer brings who they are and what they are into how they dance, and when you're dealing with an artist of Misha's sensitivity and sensibility, the results are extraordinary. He also happens to be a superhuman technician, and when you ask for that he gives it to you -- you can see what happens in "The Four Seasons.' But he's much more than that -- he's capable of profound poetry, and that's so rare."
As satisfied as he is with "The Four Seasons," he still has some reservations about production, and hopes to mount a new version, possibly for the company's spring season in New York.
"I'd like to try out a theory I have," he says, "that the present costumes throw the spectator off course. I've noticed that those who've seen the ballet in rehearsal clothes have a very different reaction to it. The thing is, people are somehow always prepared for me to be doing a spoof. But the only spoofing I did was called for by Verdi's libretto. It's basically a pure dance ballet, and I'd like to test out the theory by having Santo Loquasto redesign it in such a way as to let people get deeper into the choreography."
Robbins also clarified the alternation of Baryshnikov and McBride with Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell as the lead couple in the "winter" section of the ballet. "A lot of people in New York think the two casts are just some sort of grandstand play on my part, but that's not it at all.
"I started working on it with Suzanne and Peter, but Suzanne was having a health problem and a knee problem and it became doubtful she'd be able to perform it. Pat McBride and Misha were gracious enough to agree to step in for the premiere. Originally there were two different variations, to different music, for Peter, but one of them didn't hold up musically and I cut it out. Now Peter and Misha do roughly the same choreography, though I changed things slightly for Misha to adapt it to him -- they're two different bodies, capable of entirely different things."
At the moment, he's working on a new, three-movement ballet -- the cast is to include Baryshnikov-to the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto.He's not sure how many dancers he'll use, but "it won't be enormous, because the music is so personal and rather intimate.
He began the choreography by working with the beginning of the music. "I always do," he says, and then catches himself. "No, wait a minute, that's not always the case. I try to start at the beginning and work right through if the music is more or less set. But when I'm working with a collection of musical pieces -- the Chopin pieces, for example -- it's a different story.
"In 'Dance at a Gathering,' for example, I was three-quarters of the way through before I composed the dance that's now performed first. But a lot of the time, the order of composition has little to do with my own desire or whim. I started 'Goldberg Variations' at the beginning of the music, but couldn't continue straight on because I couldn't get the dancers I needed when I needed them. Often it's rehearsal schedules and mundane things like that that turn out to be the determining factors."
Robbins finds the music he wants to choreograph by a process of avid but more or less random perusal. "I go to a lot of concerts, I read a lot of reviews, sometimes friends suggest things or put me on to a particular score. But mostly I listen to a lot of recordings. I couldn't possibly predict beforehand what might appeal to me -- sometimes I'm surprised myself what does. But I don't think I'll ever do an electronic dcore; I don't know exactly why, but I haven't yet heard one I've been attracted to."
Though the NYCB has already made four programs for public TV's "Dance in America" series concentrating on Balanchine ballets, very few Robbins pieces have been recorded for video, and though his own personal generosity helped establish the dance film archieve for the New York Public Library, he himself remains skeptical about media transcription.
"No film has ever truly recorded a ballet as a performance," he says. "Sure, it's important to have a record, especially for choreographers to be able to reconstruct works. And we'd all love to have had a film of Nijinsky -- even a bad one. God! -- to have had a film record of the first production of 'Rite of Spring,' for instance -- or even 'Swan Lake.' But as for my own work on television, I don't know, I just worry about the conditions.
"It's a wonderful thing, of course, that they can be shown to so vast an audience. But the art of photographing dance for television hasn't improved much in the last 20 years, it seems to me. One just hopes the work comes out not slaughtered. Certainly one doesn't expect it to be enhanced, and you're grateful if the result can at least be representative of the basic patterns of the ballet.
"There's no way on TV of giving the thrill, the excitement, the tension of a live performance, in a three-dimensional, fixed space."
For reasons like these, Robbins says he generally prefers the dance installments of the "Live From Lincoln Center" series to most of the "Dance in America" programs though he doesn't rule out contributing something to the latter series in the future.
There are older works of Robbins that he wouldn't mind seeing restaged -- a revival of West Side Story" for New York, perhaps with a Washington opening, is in the talking phase, he says; his mysteriously evocative ballet, "Watermill," will return to the NYCB repertory this spring with Edward Villella in his original ruminative, nondancing lead role; and of a work like his "Age of Anxiety" of 1950, with its Bernstein score inspired by the celebrated W.H. Auden poem, he says, "Sure, I'd be curious to see it again, to see what I did." But he's loath to dwell on the past.
"I'd like to see it, but I wouldn't want to work on it. I don't like to spend my energy going back. There are too many new things I want to do right now."