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How much do you know about the world-renowned choreographer Jerome Robbins? We’re about to bring you up to speed as we cover his life, choreography, musicals, and his lasting impact on the dance scene. Get ready to dive in!
Jerome Robbins was one of the most popular and imaginative American dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. Robbins became well-known for his use of contemporary American themes in ballets and musicals. He was praised for his highly innovative ballets structured within the traditional framework of classical dance movements.
Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz (Robbins) was born on October 11, 1918, in New York City to Harry Rabinowitz and Lena Rips. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who had many connections in show business including vaudeville performers and theatre owners. Robbins displayed an early interest in music, dancing, and theatrics whilst at school. After completing his primary education from schools in Weehawken, he moved to Woodrow Wilson High School where he graduated in 1935.
Robbins began studying chemistry at New York University (NYU) in 1935. America at that time was reeling under the effects of the Great Depression and his family could no longer afford to fund his education, forcing him to drop out. However, on a more positive note, leaving college gave him the opportunity to explore his passion for dance. Jerome enrolled at the New Dance League and learned ballet, modern dance, Spanish dance, and folk dance from the likes of Ella Daganova, Antony Tudor, Helen Veola, and Yeichi Nimura. He also studied dance composition with Bessie Schonberg.
Jerome Robbins’ style of choreography moved away from artificiality and dancers who played to the audience. He wanted his dancers to look ‘real’ and react to the others naturally onstage. If a plot was involved, he wanted his dancers to know their character in-depth, even knowing what his/her character had eaten for dinner the night before! This way of working influenced his choreographic style and the movements he chose.
The Jets and Sharks in one of Robbins’ most famous works, ‘West Side Story’ are not simply ‘chorus boys’. They’re edgy, they hunker down into dancing or throw themselves into the air without denying that effort. His second ballet, ‘Interplay’ (1945), told a simple story with young dancers often just sitting down to rest or watch a romance unfold.
In 1969, Robbins decided to stop choreographing, directing musicals, and taking on other theatre projects to commit himself to Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. He chose to begin his great ‘Dances at a Gathering’ without a typical ensemble opener. Instead, Edward Villella stood alone on stage with his back to the audience and began to dance to the Chopin piano piece being played. Robbins had told him to imagine he was revisiting a place he had once known well and experiencing it both as it was now and as it had been. Jerome Robbins’ ballet career was extensive!
You probably know more about Robbins than you might think as he choreographed some of the most iconic musicals of all time. These include On the Town, Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, and Fiddler on the Roof. His last Broadway production was in 1989 and during his career he won six Tony Awards including best musical and best director.
You’ve probably heard of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story a lot. Robbins earned extensive acclaim for the musical ‘West Side Story’ (1957) which he directed and choreographed. The musical explored a love story that blossoms amongst the rivalry between two teenage street gangs. It was an immediate success and launched Robbins to stardom. Jerome Robbins on Broadway is something to be seen!
Along with Robert Wise, Robbins directed the film version of ‘West Side Story’ in 1961 which also became a huge success, receiving critical acclaim and becoming the biggest hit at the box office. It was the second highest grossing film of the year in America and won a very impressive ten Academy Awards. There has just been a new adaption of the film released on 10th December 2021 starring Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno and Rachel Zegler.
Jerome Robbins sadly passed away in 1998 from a stroke at his home in New York. On the night of his death, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for a moment in tribute.
Here are some of Robbins’ most famous quotes:
“Give me something to dance about and I’ll dance it.”
“Dance is like life. It exists as you are flitting through it, and when it’s over, it’s done.”
“Dance is low on the totem pole of the arts, because you’re not left with a painting… a book that will stay there, a score you can read.”
“We were all novices. We really were. We didn’t know a goddamn thing about doing a show.”
“There’s no secret to working with kids. They either charm you and you can work with them, or they don’t charm you and you feel you’re stuck with them.”
We hope you’ve found it interesting learning about Jerome Robbins with us, and if you’d like to find out about other famous choreographers, check out our Choreographer Series on our website.
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