Unlike most great choreographers, who are known as masters in one genre, Jerome Robbins had equal success and influence in two very different worlds: ballet and Broadway. To both he brought a uniquely American style and modern subject matter, creating finger-snapping gang members in the musical West Side Story and sailors on leave and in love in the ballet Fancy Free.
Born Jerome Rabinowitz in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1918, Robbins played piano and violin, wrote poetry and painted as a kid. While he was studying chemistry at New York University, his older sister introduced him to her dance teacher, who took Robbins on as an apprentice in his modern company—despite his inexperience.
His first breaks were dancing in the choruses of Broadway musicals (including 1940’s Keep Off the Grass, which George Balanchine choreographed). Soon after deciding to train intensely in ballet, Robbins landed a spot in the brand-new American Ballet Theatre, working closely with choreographers Agnes de Mille and Antony Tudor.
Success came quickly: By the time he was 23, Robbins was a celebrated soloist at ABT. Two years later, he got to try his hand at choreography. He created the smash hit Fancy Free, about three sailors on leave in NYC, with then-unknown composer Leonard Bernstein. The following year, they turned it into a Broadway musical called On the Town.
Not content with his initial Broadway success, Robbins wrote to Balanchine in 1949, asking to work with New York City Ballet. His earliest works for the company—The Cage (1951), Afternoon of a Faun (1953)—remain repertory favorites. For the next few decades, Robbins enjoyed a string of hits on both the ballet and Broadway stage. His musicals included The King and I (1951), West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). At NYCB, he became associate artistic director and created dozens of ballets, many of which are still widely performed today—like the quiet, lovely Dances at a Gathering (1969).
Despite these professional achievements, Robbins had many personal struggles. He was insecure about his sexuality and Jewish background and constantly worried his next work would fail. In 1953, when he was called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, he named eight colleagues as communists to avoid exposing his own homosexuality. He died of a stroke at 79, only two months after restaging his version of Les Noces for NYCB.
The Cage (1951) Robbins used Igor Stravinsky’s music for this haunting ballet about a colony of predatory female creatures who kill off male intruders.
Afternoon of a Faun (1953) Robbins’ version of this famous piece replaces Nijinsky’s encounter between faun and nymphs with young dancers in the studio.
West Side Story (1957) For this Broadway musical, Robbins set the story of Romeo and Juliet among rival gangs in NYC. He co-directed the film version with Robert Wise but was fired before the film was completed for going over budget. (He still shared an Academy Award with Wise for best director.)
Fiddler on the Roof (1964) One of the most memorable dance sequences from this musical takes place at a Jewish wedding, where men link arms, kneel and slide across the floor with bottles balanced on their heads.
By his late 20s, Robbins had joined ABT, choreographed a ballet and turned it into a hit Broadway musical. Photo courtesy of DM archives
Robbins’ choreography had an emphasis on American dancing, to American music—like blues and jazz. He always wanted an easy, natural style from his dancers, and he often told them to dance as if they were “marking” it. He had a reputation as a perfectionist and occasionally brutal taskmaster, reducing his dancers to tears and making them rehearse endless variations of a step or phrase.
On the night Robbins died, the lights on Broadway were dimmed for a moment in tribute. Over his lifetime, he won five Tony Awards, two Academy Awards and one Emmy Award, and he received the Kennedy Center Honors.
The Legacy Lives On
Robbins’ ballets remain in the active repertory of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre today, and many of his Broadway shows are revived periodically (On the Town was just rebooted on Broadway last fall, and some 200 schools across the country put on Fiddler on the Roof each year). The extensive dance division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is named for him.