Despite a professed abhorrence of interviews, Jerome Robbins unburdened himself freely the other day about his past, present and future as a creative artist.
The canvas was as broad as Robbins' ever-expanding interests -- his most recent ballet, "In Memory of . . .," the subject of much admiration and speculation, and his sharp -- and angry -- disagreement with playwright Arthur Laurents over the current Washington production of "West Side Story."
He also spoke about persistent rumors of his imminent return to Broadway; changes in the New York City Ballet since the death of George Balanchine; his unusual collaboration with perennial upstart Twyla Tharp last year; and plans and projects ranging from new ballets to opera to fantasies of choreography for outer space.
As co-balletmaster in chief (with Peter Martins) of NYCB, Robbins will be in Washington when the company returns to the Kennedy Center Opera House, after a season's absence, for a two-week engagement starting Tuesday night. One of the highlights will be the Washington premiere of "In Memory of . . .," which is set to Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and features Suzanne Farrell, Adam Lu ders and Joseph Duell as principal dancers, together with an ensemble of seven women and nine men. (Robbins' "The Four Seasons" and "Concertino" will also be on the Opera House bills, along with the Washington premiere of Peter Martins' "Poulenc Sonata," six masterworks by Balanchine and, for the entire second week of the run, his full-length "A Midsummer Night's Dream.")
After the premiere of "In Memory of . . ." last spring, many reviewers interpreted the work as an homage to Balanchine, the guiding creative spirit of NYCB who died two years ago and had been a friend and inspiration to Robbins for more than four decades. The theory was abetted by the fact that Farrell had been Balanchine's most prized ballerina throughout the latter quarter of his life.
Robbins, though, says he was surprised.
"People who see the ballet are of course free to see any meaning in it they wish," he says, "but it isn't fair to ascribe those same meanings to the creator of the ballet, or assume this was part of his intention. The fact is I only meant the work to apply generally, to anyone you love who goes through a serious illness and dies. In this respect, I followed the subtext of the score, as given to me by the composer. But I myself didn't consciously have Mr. Balanchine in mind in making the ballet."
Berg had dedicated his Concerto "to the memory of an angel, and its composition was instigated by the death from polio of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Berg's friend Alma Mahler. Berg himself, moreover, died at age 50 only months after completing the concerto, in 1935. A program note for Robbins' NYCB premiere quotes an authoritative book on Berg by George Perle, who suggests that the composition was intended not only as a memorial to Manon Gropius and a requiem for the composer himself, but that the music also contains "hidden" allusions to other emotional crises in Berg's life. Robbins says:
"I did think of people close to me -- my secretary of 40 years, Edith Weissman, whose hand I held at the end, and Tanny Tanaquil LeClercq, former NYCB ballerina and wife to Balanchine , whose career was tragically cut short by polio. . . . Perhaps, in retrospect, the title, with its three dots, may seem misleading."
Robbins adds that Balanchine himself had once thought seriously about a ballet for Farrell on the theme of Salome using Berg's "Lulu Suite," and had gone so far as to make a piano reduction of the score. But, Robbins notes, this was some years ago and had no bearing on his own recent work.
In fact, he says, it was his encounter with the Violin Concerto that led to the choreography of "In Memory of . . .," and not until the conception was well in mind did he then think of Farrell as its ideal interpreter. A concert of Berg's chamber music sent him on a purchasing spree for Berg's music at a nearby record shop -- among his acquisitions was the concerto.
"I didn't remember until a friend reminded me that I'd been very moved by this music years ago at an earlier hearing. I thought, what a strange work it was -- strictly serial in construction, yet so lyrical, so poignant. I read up about the origins of the piece, and was struck by what a series of losses Berg himself had sustained in his last year -- the young girl he was so deeply fond of, his citizenship, and as it turned out, his own life. . . ."
Robbins also felt the score was the most "underwritten" of Berg's works, and needed something (choreography, for instance) to complete its statement. The work on the piece proved troublesome, however, up to a crucial point.
"I had the big plan in view -- the girl herself, her struggle against death, her transfiguration -- but I had no idea how I was going to realize it. I didn't start out in the studio working with Farrell. I had so much respect for her as an artist, I didn't want to be groping my way into the material with her. So I began choreographing with some of the company's youngest members.
"When I'd completed a first section, I called in Suzanne and began working on a second. But when I'd finished that section, I didn't like it very much. The company had a week's break at this point, which I spent playing the tapes and working with the score. The sadness of it began to pull me down; I grew depressed by the sorrowfulness of the subject. Besides, I hadn't the faintest idea of how to do the death section.
"When the company returned, I'd just about decided to cancel the project, and I ended the rehearsal early. Then I saw Adam Lu ders sitting on the floor, and I said to myself, let's just see what happens if I use him as the Death figure. So we stayed and began to work, with Adam and Lisa Jackson, and I did about a third of the pas de deux.
"The next day, I called Suzanne back, finished the duet and started into the chorale section. Within 10 days, I'd completed the whole ballet. Those first two days with Adam and Suzanne, when they fused to each other and to the work, were some of the most extraordinary rehearsal moments for me ever. It was almost as if things had been prechoreographed somewhere."
The one remaining problem was that Robbins finished the project so quickly that there was a long hiatus between completion and performance. "I felt like a dancer all made up, in costume, fully warmed up, standing in the wings but unable to go on. It had never happened to me before and I hated it."
Robbins' ire was roused by an interview with Arthur Laurents, printed in The Washington Times when "West Side Story" opened at the Kennedy Center. Robbins had conceived, choreographed and directed the original 1957 Broadway production of the musical, for which Laurents did the book, Leonard Bernstein the music and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics. In the interview, Laurents questioned the wisdom of the revival and its durability as a show, scoffed at the film version and the recent Bernstein recording, and said of the choreography that "it would be interesting to have a new take on it" -- that is, to have some other choreographer replace Robbins' contribution.
"I thought this was as callous, unfriendly and disparaging as anyone could have been on the opening night of a show he wrote," Robbins says. "It's true his Laurents' part of the collaboration was the most difficult, and he'd often been slapped for this book; he was always unhappy about that. Arthur has a good talent for adaptations -- 'Gypsy,' for instance a Robbins-Laurents collaboration in 1959 was a wonderful book. But the book for 'West Side Story' was never the strongest part of the show; it has terribly maudlin spots, even Arthur admits this. From my point of view, I'd like to 'have a new take' on the book.
"I'm angry at him, as you can tell. He's always put down my work on the show. But there are some shows which it's hard to think about apart from their choreography -- Balanchine's 'On Your Toes' and de Mille's 'Oklahoma,' for example, and many by Fosse, Bob Alton and Jack Cole, among others. The dancing is absolutely integral to such shows. I'm not embarrassed by my work on 'West Side Story,' I'm proud of it, as I think Lenny Bernstein is of his, even if Steve Sondheim and Arthur Laurents go around bitching about it.
"I didn't do the current Washington production; I just came for a few days to tune it up and lend moral support. I don't claim it's the best production that ever existed, but I'm not ashamed of it. I don't see why Arthur would blast it and collect the money at the same time. I consider it disgraceful and unethical for someone in the professional theater to make such remarks publicly at such a time."
Rumors that Robbins would be returning to Broadway this fall to work again on a musical have been circulating for a while. One national dance publication conjectured specifically that Robbins would be reviving "On the Town," the 1944 show that first made Robbins and Bernstein headliners.
"It's the first I've heard of it," Robbins says with what sounds like genuine astonishment. "As of right now, I have no plans to do anything on Broadway. I thought I'd be working at this time on a theater piece that every so often I've come back to. But it's not ready yet. This past summer I spent in a slug-like state. I read a little bit, researched the project somewhat, rested up. I can only hope something's happening with it, inside." The "theater piece" he refers to is a concept Robbins has toyed with and spoken of over many years. It would, he has said, deal with experiences of his past, but instead of being directly autobiographical would be more of a "phantasmagoria."
As for changes in the NYCB, Robbins says, "It has to be. Balanchine's not there, we have to face it. It's scary, to be sure, to look around and see the dancers, maybe eight to 10 dancers by now, who have never worked with him. But we know that's the future, that the time will come when his heritage will be something the dancers receive at second, third or fourth hand.
"On the other hand, I knew Mr. Balanchine since 1938. I worked intimately with him from 1949 to 1962, and then from 1969 to his death. I shared offices with him, I was privy to his thinking, about people, work, the dancers. He was someone who could always swing with what was happening, with change. But I think he had certain -- what's the hardest word you can think of -- 'diamond' principles which never changed, and that's what we have to keep trying to pass on."
Robbins confirms that he won't be choreographing any new ballets for the NYCB winter season. "Maybe I'll come up with something for the spring," he says. "I've got a backlog of ideas, but I've got to find out which ones may be ripe for plucking. The company's got so many talented dancers right now, your head reels trying to do something for each one of them."
He looks back on his collaboration with Twyla Tharp, in last year's flamboyantly zestful ballet "Brahms/Handel," with unalloyed relish. "It was a wonderful, hard, fierce, exciting experience. I think altogether we made five ballets to arrive at the one. The best part was that the choreography became so integrated we ourselves couldn't have retraced the paths we took to get where we ended up."
Robbins expects to be in London next month, catching up with theater and looking in on the Royal Ballet, which may be reviving some of his ballets. He says there's also talk at the Paris Opera Ballet of presenting a whole evening of Robbins. He also anticipates mounting a series of his works for a pair of TV programs New York's WNET-Channel 13 will be doing for the spring.
"I'll tell you something else I've been playing around with this past summer," he says. "I've always wanted to stage the Richard Strauss opera 'Salome.' I've studied the score a lot, and I've started probing around to see if there's an opera company which can give the time I'd need to do it. Some of my ideas for ways of doing it I've had all my life."
Robbins is among the choreographers John Curry has asked to do something for his ice dance company, but Robbins says he simply hasn't found the time. "In these over-60 years he's 65 I want to be careful of how I use my energies. It's not disrespect for Curry, I admire him tremendously. It's just that my greatest love is the ballet. Who knows, maybe some day I'll get an idea that can only be done on ice; we'll just have to see. The idea of being able to take a position and glide with it is very appealing.
"I felt that way the first time I went scuba diving. It gives a whole new dimension of possibilities. The body can go up and down and sideways -- I've wondered what it would be like to choreograph for that medium.
"Also the moon. Imagine what double air turns, or lifts, would be like on the moon . . ."