The death of Jerome Robbins, on July 29, was one of those rare events that make you realize a big chunk of a world you blithely took for granted – and perhaps undervalued – has sheared away. Although he operated brilliantly in the theater (West Side Story was just one of his dazzlers), Robbins opted to put his main efforts into work for the concert-dance stage. Of course, he brought his theatrical instincts with him, creating ballets that blended the classical vocabulary with the vernacular and making it okay for protagonists to belong to the non-elite. Americans, teenagers, and peasants, rather than supercivilized aristocrats, were the heroes of his works, beginning with Fancy Free, Interplay, and, later, Les Noces for American Ballet Theatre, then going on through a slew of dances in an astonishing variety of modes for the New York City Ballet, the 1969 Dances at a Gathering remaining, perhaps, the richest and most subtle in emotional range.
I’ve always suspected that Robbins joined forces with the NYCB because it was the home of George Balanchine, the only classical choreographer operating in America whose genius was clearly greater than his. And I’ve always admired that. A number of works Robbins made for Balanchine’s dancers have a vividness that remains indelible: Afternoon of a Faun, about the exquisite romance of narcissism; The Cage, which proposes woman as an insect whose male mate is her prey; and The Concert, the only entirely comic ballet that remains funny after a first viewing. It should also be noted that a good number of Balanchine’s dancers who were particularly distinguished for their stage personalities were first singled out by Robbins, who had a knack for seeing what was possible in performers and making it bloom. As Robbins matured, he often favored a more abstract mode – The Goldberg Variations, Brandenburg – that was, perhaps, not the most congenial arena for his talents. But an artist follows the path he must; neither he nor we do well to quibble with it much, since it is actually beyond the control of the artist himself, if he faithfully follows his instincts.
A perfectionist, Robbins was his own enemy. So anxious was he to transfer his brilliant visions into onstage realities – and realities that were replicable – that he was cruelly demanding of his dancers (most of whom revered him anyway) and denied himself and his works the grace of spontaneity. When I interviewed him about the creation of Fancy Free, he made his own tape recording of our conversations, a controlling device that made me both loathe and pity him – and then I’d run into him periodically at the Metropolitan Museum, perusing other artists’ visions, and I’d love him again.