tv Eyewitness 11PM News CBS December 31, 2012 11:00pm-11:35pm EST
"jerome robbins: something to dance about" is made possible in part by a major grant from the national endowment for the humanities because democracy demands wisdom. funding for this program and for "american masters" is provided by the national endowment for the arts because a great nation deserves great art. additional funding for "american masters" is provided by the corporation for public broadcasting.
jerry is the only genius i've ever met, my definition of genius being endless invention. he was very, very particular and that was both frightening and thrilling. if you do what jerome robbins tells you to do, you're gonna be just fine. people forget about him as a performer. he was a wonderful performer. when he was on sure ground he was fine. when he was on less sure ground or unable to express himself he was a terror. he insulted me many times. he was an absolute doll. great artists are not great saints. it's two jobs. [ "prologue" from "west side story" continues ]
good evening. i'm ed murrow. the name of the program is "person to person." tonight we'll be visiting first with jerome robbins, the outstanding director/choreographer in the american theater today. at the age of 40 he can look back on an almost unbroken string of broadway and ballet hits during, oh the past 15 years. to date, it's certainly been quite a career for the youngster who spent one year at college studying chemistry. 'evening, jerry. good evening, ed. what you up to tonight? i'm just waiting nervously for you to arrive. jerry -- just how did a young chemistry student find his way into choreography? well, i was always interested in theater, ed. and i went to college for a year and then the money gave out. and so then i thought i'd try, uh, theater, because i loved it. my sister was a dancer and so i went that way first. narrator: his sister, sonia, studied
with a teacher influenced by the revolutionary interpretive dancer, isadora duncan and the young jerome was as he said "dragged along," sometimes even joining in. "what it gave me immediately," robbins wrote, "was the absolute freedom to make up my own dances without inhibition." jerome wilson rabinowitz was born october 11, 1918. his parents, harry and lena rabinowitz, who lived in weehawken, new jersey ran the comfort corset company. like many jewish immigrants, they made culture an integral part of their children's upbringing and their son was attracted to all the arts -- music, painting, and writing. his mother, lena was a piece of work. he loved her to desperation, but if he did anything wrong it was
"you're breaking my heart. how could i have raised such a son?" she would pretend to dial an orphanage and say "come take my son. i don't want him." narrator: after one such outburst, he wrote her an apologetic poem -- that she carefully corrected. "my father was always present, but never there," robbins remembered -- "a stubborn fortress an ungiving forest, a book that wouldn't open its pages." but robbins made himself an open book in a lifetime's worth of unflinchingly honest personal journals, beginning with the diary he turned into a high school composition. "i stand before a mirror," he wrote. "ahead, two dark eyes are looking back at me "beneath a shock of black hair. "slowly the mask begins to rise, "revealing another face, a mask of malignant capability.
"this also rises leaving me looking "at a mask of complete tranquility, "but this rises and another is shown and still another... "faster and faster they come. they are all me, every one." when i left college and there wasn't any money to go back, i thought i'd work th the corset business i'd e what it was like. and i did not like it. narrator: "i wasn't at all sure what things i wanted to do," robbins said, "but running the comfort corset company was not among them." "when i was a child, art seemed like a tunnel to me. "at the end of that tunnel i could see light where the world opened up, waiting." robbins: i wanted to become a dancer. i made my money delivering eggs,
doing what i had to do to earn enough money to get lessons. most of my lessons i got through scholarship. which was, i would trade some -- wash the windows, wash the floors, deliver posters. narrator: he found his first mentor in the choreographer gluck sandor who took him into his modern dance company as an apprentice. jowitt: sandor knew how to get truth out of performers. the acting seemed real. it was not phony. narrator: sandor helped the boy get his first professional engagement in the yiddish art theatre's production of "the brothers ashkenazi," advising him to use an american-sounding stage name. in 1939, when i was starting my career as a dancer, i was a modern dancer, and in those days modern dancers and ballet dancers looked at each other with great contempt
and great disdain. and i went to the met and i saw madame danilova do "swan lake." and it was a revelation. and i had to reconsider everything, because i realized that the classical vocabulary was a valuable instrument to be able to say anything you wanted to say in dance. so it changed my training, it changed my career it changed my choreography and it changed my life. narrator: two weeks after his 21st birthday, robbins made the following entry in his diary -- "i have found the purpose of all i shall do "and the regulation of my life. i will live to dance." it wasn't an easy resolution to keep. 'cause you have to remember there weren't ballet companies in those days.
there weren't any. murrow: didn't you play the borscht circuit at one time? yes, i spent about four or five summers up at camp tamiment with danny kaye and with imogene coca. that was a very valuable experience. woman: we all got on to a big bus, out of new york. we were going on the jersey turnpike to the pocono mountains. there were two young guys sitting in front of me with dark heads. and we're bouncing along smelling the pig farms. and one of the heads turns around, he said, "hi, i'm eddie gilbert and i'm a scene designer." and i said, "oh, hi, i'm ruthanna boris and i'm the choreographer." and the other head turned around and looked me straight in the eye and said "my name is jerome robbins and i am the choreographer." narrator: tamiment was a summer resort that also served as a show business boot camp
where the young entertainment staff invented a new broadway-style revue each week. sometimes these were politically conscious, in keeping with tamiment's origins as a socialist vacation retreat. more often they were just smart, irreverent, and funny. funniest of all was imogene coca, for whom robbins created a parody of nijinsky's scandalous classic "afternoon of a faun." [ laughter ] "i believe i learned more from her about timing and humor than from anyone else," robbins said. [ laughter ] boris: jerry was a sponge. he was hungry, he was thirsty he was dying to be somebody.
narrator: after auditioning unsuccessfully for a string of musicals robbins finally connected -- with a show called "great lady," choreographed by george balanchine a russian émigré ballet-maker currently working on broadway. the new chorus boy went on to two more musicals where he was joined by other unemployed ballet dancers. man: nora kaye and jerry, and alicia alonso, too, were in a musical called "stars in your eyes." they were in the chorus, tapping away behind ethel merman. and they went on into ballet theatre, and then i began to watch ballet theatre the first season and i fell in love with it and i thought, "god, what a wonderful place to be." so i auditioned and got into it. narrator: founded in 1940, ballet theatre was the first large-scale american ballet company, dancing contemporary works as well as the traditional russian-influenced repertory. from the beginning it was a touring company, with a touring company's camaraderie.
robbins: it was a great school for me to be able to go from rehearsal to rehearsal in the same day and work with different choreographers. narrator: agnes de mille creator of the high-spirited "rodeo," gave the young robbins the first role that highlighted his comic gifts in "three virgins and a devil." man: he was this young man who just strutted across stage waving a rose. but he did it so deliciously. i mean -- no one has ever since done it like that. narrator: he wasn't a heroic classical dancer but robbins stood out in a variety of other roles, from the comic to the dramatic to the exotic. his talents attracted the attention of the great russian choreographer mikhail fokine. robbins: he gave me a rather classical dance. and i tried and tried and tried. and finally i went to him and i said "mr. fokine, you know, i, i think
"you ought to take me out of this. i really don't feel comfortable." he said, "no, you must do it you must do it. you must learn to play everything." he loved the fact that fokine developed real characters onstage. he wanted everybody in the corps to look as if he or she had a motivation. narrator: fokine cast robbins in a role he had created for the legendary nijinsky -- the tragic puppet petrouchka whose life is lost in his unrequited quest for love but whose soul survives, damaged but undaunted. "it has to be good," robbins wrote in his diary on the eve of his first performance. "it is me in so many ways." robbins also found a mentor in the english choreographer antony tudor whose work was distinguished by a new emphasis on character and psychology. robbins: tudor was very good for me because it was interesting to watch how he struggled. i remember in "romeo and juliet," there was a little one-minute dance.
and i think he was there for about a week on it. he got in his own way -- i could see that happen -- as i think i did in my way, too. he had an incredible eye. and he missed nothing, and he would watch me in the back because i was always inventing steps and trying out lifts with girls. once at rehearsal, he said "i'm stuck here, i need a lift. jerry, do you have a lift?" i said, "yes." and he said, "oh, that's perfect, can i have it?" i said, "of course," and i felt him giving me a pat on the back, saying, "go ahead, i believe in you." narrator: eager to make dances himself robbins asked to watch rehearsals for ballets being staged for the company by george balanchine whose innovative work he deeply admired. on tour with ballet theatre in mexico city robbins got a break. he was hired to create dances for a frothy movie musical the first robbins choreography to be preserved on film.
jowitt: after jerry joined ballet theatre the finances became difficult and sol hurok took over and installed russian managers and choreographers. robbins: i got tired of dancing a whole year in boots, bloomers, a wig. and i thought, "why can't we dance about american subjects? why can't we talk about the way we dance today, and how we are?" narrator: robbins found material everywhere -- in dance halls and usos, on the street, in the park and in the movies. robbins: i kept propositioning the ballet company with four-act and five-act ballets. then finally someone said, "well, why don't you just do a small ballet
"with a few people? one set so they can maybe get it on for you." someone suggested to me "the fleet's in," that picture by paul cadmus, which i thought, "no, this is too raunchy for me." but it gave me the idea of working with sailors, which at that time were rife in new york because it was the middle of the war. so i just kept my eyes open about what they were doing. and then i wrote a ballet. it was about two of my best friends and myself in the company. we palled around together. narrator: to compose the score robbins turned to someone as unknown as he was. robbins: and that was leonard bernstein. i was still a dancer traveling all over the united states with the ballet theatre. and lenny would send me music and a little disc of how it was to be played. bernstein: anyway, my love and i hope you like it. good luck, jerry. robbins: and that was the beginning of our collaboration.
woman: it wasn't like they looked like ballet dancers. they looked like people who happened to be able to dance very well. and that's what i think jerry wanted. he wanted human beings on the stage. narrator: the solos robbins made for his friends and for himself showed off their distinctive personalities -- the first sailor had harold lang's brash, in-your-face charm...
had changed not only robbins' life, but american ballet, as well. man: "fancy free" to me was a breakthrough of enormous proportion. man: it was artful and fun at the same timeme. woman: he really hit the audience right where they were living. laurents: this was a world at war and people wanted something to lift them up and to believe in. and he was a kid. and it was an american dream come true, particularly an american kid doing a european art form. robbins: it was a shocking change from nothing to everything. and i wasn't prepared for it. i had thought that all my problems would change once i was a success. well, here i was a success and although there was much more opportunity, none of my problems changed. and i had to look somewhere else to straighten out. narrator: on "fancy free's" opening night,
robbins later wrote, "i realized that now i would have enough money to start analysis." but self-examination did not inhibit his ambition. ♪ new york, new york ♪ ♪ new york, new york ♪ ♪ it's a hell of a town ♪ with the writers betty comden and adolph green robbins, leonard bernstein and designer oliver smith reinvented "fancy free" as "on the town," a musical that fully realized the interweaving of action, song, and dance initiated by agnes de mille in "oklahoma." and with robbins' insistence that the chorus look like a real new york city crowd, "on the town" integrated broadway. man: the u.s. army is basically still segregated in 1944. major league baseball is not to be desegregated until 1947. narrator: "on the town's" leading lady reflected the show's diversity --
the japanese-american sono osato. she and the youthful creative team, all of them still in their 20s were led by the veteran broadway director, george abbott. gallagher: he had no time for sentimentality. none whatsoever. if he thought somebody should be replaced the person was standing in the wings while the other person was performing. dances were cut, they were left in -- he was ruthless. and of course in the long run, he was right. jerry once said he's the only man that scared him to death. gallagher: at that stage in jerry's career, he needed that because he had to be restrained from his own talent in a way. woman: i think the total job overwhelmed him. that's very scary, because now the money is in. it's no longer like a ballet it's money. narrator: the pressure of a broadway-bound production derailed robbins' self-confidence,
and he fled the boston tryouts for three days. osato: i was still committed to jerry whether he was there or not. so he came back and i said "well, you know, "we'll work until 3:00 in the morning, jerry. just don't leave." narrator: the work paid off. eight months after "fancy free's" premiere, "on the town" made it official -- jerome robbins was the hottest new name in ballet and on broadway. ♪ new york, new york ♪ ♪ new york, new york ♪ ♪ it's a hell of a town ♪ but robbins was still asking himself what kind of artist he wanted to be when a chance meeting with george balanchine, he said "lit up my mind." robbins: i was taking a vacation in nantucket, and he was, too. we happened to find each other on the boat. we weren't very close, but i sat and talked with him for a while. and i said, "you know, dance can be so specific about what it wants to say."
he said, "well what do you want to say? "supposing it starts with, "there are five girls on the stage and they're dancing. "and then three more come in and join them. then one boy comes in and seven girls leave." [ laughing ] he said, "what else do you want?" narrator: the plotless "interplay," which the critic edwin denby called "a classic ballet with vernacular manners," was robbins at his most playful. the jazz-age musical "billion dollar baby" revealed his darker side. gallagher: i loved working with him but he wanted it the way he wanted it and if you weren't using everything that you had to get there
he would strip you naked practically. he would just pull the flesh right off your bones and then rebuild you. it wasn't a lot of fun to be around. 'cause he would be mean, mean as a snake. he had this way of, when he couldn't get the choreography to come, going down, really down, into an abyss some place. his eyes would get dark and kind of stormy. and sure enough, he would yell at somebody, and up would come the choreography. it was just like an eruption. [ screams ] man: there's a famous story that people attribute to different shows. well, i saw it in "billion dollar baby." jerry was addressing the dancers. there might have been 12, 15 people on the stage. and he started walking backwards, and nobody stopped him. and he took another step and he fell backwards into the pit. a lot of people were not too unhappy
about it. no one no one went to his aid. woman: it was a balmy march evening. i was at the belasco theater. he walked up to me and he said "my name is jerome robbins "and if i don't speak to you now i may never find you." so, you know i was in hog's heaven. he was 27. he had the most beautiful brown eyes. they were like crying, laughing eyes. i found myself falling in love with him. he said he wanted to marry me, and it was a mutual decision that i move in with him. but, you see, i knew nothing about jerry, really, what was going on on the inside, which, of course i found out.
we were asleep in the middle of the night. i don't remember what time it was. there was a knocking at the door. "jerry, jerry! jerry?" jerry went downstairs. i said, "what is it?" he said, "oh, it's monty clift. he's drunk." montgomery clift, the actor. and here is the story that he told me. he and montgomery clift were lovers. monty went to california to make his first film and jerry was desolate just bereaved. and as he was telling me this, tears were running down his face. and he said, "but i don't want to be that way. "i don't want to be with monty. i don't want to be with any man. "i want to be with you. i want to be married. i want to have children." he was shaking and reassuring me, "it won't happen again."
and i just, i, i just knew that it was all wrong. don't ask me how. and, and i don't know even today -- it's 60 years later -- but what i did know, he was the first boy i was in love with. he was my first love. narrator: "everyone has something lovely he has wanted very much and wasn't able to have," said robbins. although he had relationships with both men and women throughout his life, he never married or had children. he made a psychosexual ballet, "facsimile," that he said, "came out of a period when i was involved with two other people." but robbins could also have a light touch with autobiographical material. ♪ my mother didn't raise her boy ♪ ♪ to be a dancer ♪ ♪ that was not her mission ♪ ♪ my father hoped i'd be an engineer
♪ ♪ or a financier ♪ ♪ that's what he was wishin' ♪ ♪ so i'm afraid that they could never love me ♪ ♪ with my arms above me in the fifth position ♪ ♪ but i'm a guy who's gotta dance ♪ narrator: "look, ma, i'm dancin'!" -- a musical robbins conceived, choreographed, and co-directed with george abbott, was autobiography repeated as farce, the story of an ambitious young choreographer, a touring ballet company and its patroness, who cast herself in swan lake. [ laughter ]
♪ it's a lovely day today ♪ narrator: robbins had become broadway's fastest rising star and was working with every major figure in musical theater including mr. tin pan alley himself, irving berlin. robbins: one time irving came to me and said, "we need something, a dance, a song to open act ii." i said, "well give me something to dance about and i'll dance it." and he said, "ah! that's the title!" ♪ something to dance about ♪ narrator: robbins and berlin worked together initially on a musical about the girl who was the model for the statue of liberty -- the first thing robbins' and berlin's parents had seen when they arrived in america. he represented a figure to me and to others like me, of a man trying to fit into a country. there was a desire to be accepted and he recognized that in me also and i think that that achievement that he made and the way he did it was an inspiration to many, many others like me and to almost all minorities. ♪ papa, won't you dance with me? ♪
narrator: by the time he choreographed "high button shoes" for director george abbott robbins seemed to have an inexhaustible gift for combining character, comedy, and storytelling in dance. gallagher: so, 4:00 in the afternoon, abbott said, "jerry, have you finished that tango?" and jerry said, "no, haven't had time." he said, "well, it's going in tonight." at 6:00, jerry dismisses the company, and in 20 minutes, he staged the number. laurents: what jerry had is almost unique in american choreographers. he was funny. he could be funny in dance really funny. and "high button shoes" has this mack sennett thing, which is sheer feydeau farce. saddler: it was based on the old mack sennett movies.
there was a plot where there were three crooks. gallagher: and the keystone kops. phil silvers was running away with a bag with all the money in it. lee: the keystone kop ballet was total madness. [ prop gun shot ] it was done to counts. you never knew who was coming out of what door. woman: the first full run-through things started to go bad. phil was going through doors smashing into people. and jerry told the chorus, "just watch out for phil." gallagher: sondra was hit so hard, she was knocked out literally knocked out, and people just jumped over her body. woman: jerry was jumping up and down, running up and down the aisles having a fit. he couldn't stop it. we were picking up bodies all over the floor. saddler: we'd come bursting through the doors with a tambourine. well, i was doing all the things like -- gallagher: and all of a sudden out comes this gorilla.
fabray: it was the most disastrous run-through you've ever seen in your life. gallagher: we said "jerry, we're having terrible problems backstage." he said, "i'll see what i can do about it." and he was laughing. and then the next day he said to us, "keep to the right." i don't think anybody could stage a musical as well as jerry robbins ever. murrow: jerry, i've heard it said that jerry robbins' career has known only successes. haven't you ever had even a partial flop? oh, i've had some big splashes, ed. [ laughs ] the first things -- as a matter of fact, the first things i ever did in any field i attempt to were pretty disastrous. as a dancer, the first time i danced, the review said that i hindered my partner more than i helped her. [ murrow laughing ] robbins: in 1948 i directed a show called "that's the ticket," and it closed out of town real fast. [ laughs ] no other flops? [ knocks ]