Jerome Robbins wasa lot of things in his 80 years on planet earth. The New York-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants forged a career for himself as a multi-award-winning choreographer, theatre director and filmmaker. Known for his distinct style of movement and use of humour in works like Funny Girl, Gypsy and every fag’s favourite star-crossed lovers parable West Side Story, Robbins dramatically changed the world of choreography, both on Broadway and in ballet.
Also well known for his bisexual leanings, Robbins had strings of both male and female lovers throughout his life and affairs with well-known stars including Montgomery Clift, Buzz Miller and Nora Kaye. Biographer Amanda Vaill, who recently completed the substantive book Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, spent more than seven years combing through files, journals and letters Robbins kept through his life. “Jerome had a real love for both men and women,” she says. “Ultimately he was a great romantic and he always really wanted a relationship with one person and a family.”
In an unfortunate psychological paradox Robbins’ expansive sexual desires were paired with a serious phobia of commitment. “If there is one great tragedy in his life it was that he was never able to find the kind of relationship that he truly sought,” Vaill says. “He never found that one person he was looking for, though he never stopped searching right up until he passed away.”
Marking the 10th anniversary of his death, the National Ballet of Canada presents three of Robbins’ works: Glass Pieces (1983), In the Night (1970) and the Canadian premiere of the wildly popular West Side Story Suite (a ballet piece inspired by his work on the award-winning stage musical and film, featuring music and lyrics by fellow queers Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim).
Originally choreographed in 1995, West Side Story Suite looks far more like a jazz piece than most works danced by the National Ballet. “The piece was composed at a time when there was a lot of crossover between ballet and Broadway,” says Jean-Pierre Frolich, the renowned US choreographer and longtime friend of Robbins charged with restaging the original work. “It’s been a very humbling experience for a lot of the dancers because I’ve had to break them from moving in the way that they were trained.”
With all of the accolades and praise lauded on him, there is still one very distinct stain on Robbins’ biography. In the early 1950s he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities as a result of his years-long membership with the Communist Party as well as the committee’s knowledge of his sexual inclinations. Fearing for his now burgeoning career Robbins made the decision to sellout his fellow artists, and provided the committee with names of artists he knew to have communist sympathies.
Vaill came across an FBI memo sent to Robbins shortly before he agreed to testify, advising him that if there was any sort of attack on the US he was on the list of people to be rounded up first. “That was a very scary thing for a Jew at that time in history,” Vaill says. “He’d seen the entire European part of his family rounded up and sent to death camps, so the threat was highly plausible.”
Though he may have saved his career Robbins deeply regretted his decision in the years following. “He wasn’t really the same person after that,” Frolich says. “He always said that he didn’t want to talk about it, but you could tell it was eating him up inside.”
Despite their disdain for his betrayal, artists couldn’t resist the appeal of his work. Robbins had some of his greatest successes during the post-McCarthy-era including Fiddler on the Roof, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and West Side Story.
“He was really the great theatre story of our generation,” says Vaill. “I don’t know any other artist whose work is as varied as his. He did ballets, Broadway, comedies, tragedies and even experimental expressionist work. He wasn’t always the same thing but he was always open to possibility. Despite the fiery temper he was known for he was also incredibly vulnerable and willing to laugh and cry to make a story happen.”