Jerome Robbins (1918–1998) was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz on October 11, 1918, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the son of Polish-Russian immigrants. Long considered “the golden boy” of dance, he lived a life of contradiction and extremes. On the one hand, Robbins achieved unparalleled success in both the commercial, populist arena of Broadway as well as the smaller, insider world of classical ballet. On the other hand, his personal life was marked by anxiety and isolation. Often described as a tyrant, Robbins could nevertheless be a generous, loving, loyal friend who would financially and emotionally support loved ones even after they were no longer part of his daily life.
Personal difficulties provided rich fodder for the creative giant who worked continuously until mere months before his death at age 79. A natural talent in several artforms, Robbins began studying piano and violin at the age of 3, even composing his own tunes. He also wrote poetry, drew, painted, took photographs and spent time as an apprentice with a marionette puppet theater. He could have pursued a career in any of those fields, but it was dance—which he didn’t take up seriously until he was in his teens—that became his life’s passion.
For many years, his sister, Sonia, was the dancer in the family, touring in a company run by Irma Duncan, a pupil of Isadora Duncan. It wasn’t until Robbins dropped out of New York University, where he was majoring in chemistry, that he began to study dance steadily, combining modern with Spanish and popular dance, as well as classical ballet. As it turned out, it was one of Sonia’s teachers, modern dancer Senia Gluck Sandor, who persuaded the boy’s father to allow him to pursue the artform.
Technically brilliant and blessed with musicality, sensitivity and a seemingly photographic memory for choreography, Robbins was nevertheless too old and too slight of build to aspire to danseur noble roles. Instead, he turned to styles that better suited his personality, including expressionistic and comedic roles, and soon found himself dancing in the chorus in several Broadway musicals. When Ballet Theatre, which would later become American Ballet Theatre, was founded in 1939, Robbins worked feverishly to land a position. He joined the company in its second season, gaining the opportunity to work with such esteemed choreographers as Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, Anton Dolin, Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille.
Robbins advanced quickly in the company. By the time he was 23, he was a featured soloist, performing Hymen in Helen of Troy, the title role in Petrouchka and Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. In 1944, at the age of 25, he became an overnight sensation as the choreographer of the breakthrough ballet Fancy Free. His work defied the Euro-Russian sensibility that permeated Ballet Theatre at that time and brought a brash young American voice to dance. Indeed, his emphasis on American dancing, to American music like blues and jazz, was perhaps Robbins’ greatest gift to the dance world. Some of his best-known works—including Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof, for which he won his third and fourth Tony Awards (for choreography and direction), and Dybbuk for New York City Ballet—celebrated Robbins’ Eastern European Jewish heritage, but these came later in his career.
The young Robbins also showed a talent for collaboration, teaming up with the equally unknown composer Leonard Bernstein on Fancy Free and the ballet’s Broadway reinterpretation, On the Town. Later, the duo reached new artistic heights when they created West Side Story for Broadway, giving Romeo and Juliet a modern edge by setting it among the street gangs of New York. Robbins and Bernstein worked incredibly well together; their only real disagreement was over whether Maria should live or die at the end of the musical.
The production of the film version of West Side Story was not as harmonious. Robbins, who had directed the Broadway production, was to co-direct the film with Robert Wise. Although Robbins’ contributions (including the spectacular opening number, with its aerial dance shot) were immense, he was fired before all the dance numbers were choreographed. Robbins accepted an Academy Award that year for Best Director on the picture with Wise, as well as his own special Academy Award for Brilliant Achievement in the Art of Choreography in Film, but he held a grudge for a long time afterward, refusing to set foot in the state of California again. He only broke his vow twice, once to visit the ailing Nora Kaye, to whom he had once been engaged and with whom he had danced at Ballet Theatre, and once for the Los Angeles opening of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the anthology that celebrated the best of Robbins’ 50 years of work on the Great White Way.
Although Robbins’ professional life was filled with successes and awards, including five Tony Awards, two Academy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of the Arts, his personal life was intense and often chaotic. He avoided being drafted for World War II by admitting to his homosexuality, but he appears to have been bisexual, as he had significant relationships with both men and women throughout his life.
In 1953, Robbins cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee by naming theater actors and dancers who were believed to be Communists. Robbins managed to avoid any professional backlash from his appearance before the Committee, but privately, he mourned the friendships and careers that he destroyed through his testimony. Highly emotional and sensitive, he hid more and more behind a protective shield while also struggling with insecurities driven by his sexuality and his identity as a Jew. The pressure of surpassing each previous success also led him to become increasingly exacting and perfectionistic later in life.
But those allowed into Robbins’ inner circle were showered with generous financial and emotional support, often for the rest of their lives. This generosity spilled over into Robbins’ professional life as well, and he mentored many other artists, including the brilliant young choreographer Bob Fosse, whose work would also take Broadway by storm.
By turns exasperating and inspirational, Robbins was a complex, intense, creative talent who made the most of every opportunity that came his way. Boundaries—whether emotional, social or otherwise—were never something that concerned him. As he said, “The possibilities of the human body are endless. Why not use them all?” DT
Stacie Strong is a writer and tap dancer living in Columbia, MO, and Chicago. She performs with the jazz band Tappuchino, using her taps as secondary percussion.