Jerome Robbins is a born overachiever. It is hard to see how he could have crammed more outstanding artistic accomplishment into his 62 years than he actually has.
Durable reputations have been made on far less than his 1957 collaboration with Leonard Bernstein, "West Side Story," which he conceived, directed and choreographed for the stage, and then choreographed and codirected for the screen. But Robbins also has "Fiddler on the Roof" to his credit -- arguably the finest example of its genre. And this is only the tip of his musical-theater iceberg, which includes more than 15 productions to which he contributed in one or another capacity, including such landmark shows as "On the Town," "Call Me Madam," "Pajama Game," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Gypsy."
In a sense, moreover, Robbins' endeavors in musical theater are but a glorified sideline, a glittering detour in a classical ballet career that has left him the most prolific and widely esteemed native-born American choreographer ever to appear in the field, and second only to George Balanchine (an earlier Kennedy Center honoree) as a supplier of masterworks for the New York City Ballet. His very first ballet, "Fancy Free" (created for Ballet Theatre in 1944) seems as fresh, funny and brilliant as ever in its secure place in contemporary repertoire, and the roughly 60 ballets that followed have included such remarkable works as "The Cage," "Afternoon of a Faun," "Les Noces," "Dances at a Gathering," "Goldberg Variations," "Other Dances," and the recent "Piano Pieces" for the NYC Ballet's Tchaikovsky Festival earlier this year.
Add to all this Robbins' manifold enterprises on television, in spoken drama, opera and the movies and you begin to get a sense of the man's creative dimension. Nor has public recognition eluded him; when he receives his award from the Kennedy Center tonight, he will have to find room on a trophy shelf already filled to bursting with two Oscars, four Tonys, an Emmy, a Drama Critics Award, two Dance Magazine Awards, the Capezio Award and dozens more.
As fond as he remains of his many works in active repertory -- "I especially admire the current New York City Ballet production of 'Fancy Free,' " he said the other day on the phone from New York -- he also finds himself "thinking about the ones that aren't on the boards, but that might still be -- what's the word? -- viable."
There's no sign of Robbins tapering off: He's begun work on a new ballet. "The music is Gershwin's 'Concerto in F,' " he says. "So far it's going very slowly. The pieces for the Tchaikovsky Festival went very fast, but this one might be more of a large group work, and that usually proceeds more slowly than a work involving mainly individuals."
Jostling around in his cranium are ideas for numbers of other projects, some new, some of long standing. "The one I care about the most is the hardest for me to talk about," he says. "It's very, very personal, a theater piece that I've been trying to push around -- no, that's not right -- I've been trying to solve it, for years. It involves most of what I know about the performing arts. Maybe it will just stay on paper, and end up a posthumous 'writing,' or maybe I'll find a way of getting it on. What I need is a workshop time, and not having to worry about getting it produced. It would be somewhat autobiographical, but not in a realistic way; I'd call it a dream or fantasy relating to events or feelings in my life. On second thought, it would be misleading to call it autobiographical -- it would deal more with phantasmagorical reactions to developments in my world."