Among Jerome Robbins’s papers from 1966 is a sketch for a play, The Mourning Dove, about the Kennedy assassination. As Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt writes in Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, performers were taught the Japanese tea ceremony “to intensify and formalize their concentration as judges at the Warren Commission hearings. Robbins had provided all the equipment: green tea, bowls, brushes, hot water. They learned to do it in precise unison. Then they practiced it without the props. Finally, after weeks, they walked in and thought it. In unison.”
The tea ceremony as Warren Commission: It was only natural that Robbins—dancer, choreographer, and director of Broadway and ballet—would find aesthetic clarification in Noh drama, with its transformations of character. Never able to shake an image of self as impostor, Robbins—born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918 to Jewish immigrants living in Manhattan and later New Jersey—for much of his life thought he should be other than he was: more loved, less Jewish, straighter, better.
In 1953, Robbins was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Jowitt’s account is abbreviated (compare Greg Lawrence’s tellingly titled Dance With Demons) but justly unpleasant: The committee obliged Robbins by turning off the lights, foiling cameras. Robbins admitted party membership and participation in front organizations between 1943 and 1947, discussing his reasons for joining and eventual disillusion. After this testimony, a member of the committee proposed adjourning for the day, but Robbins’s lawyer urged them to continue. “At that point,” Jowitt writes, “it became clear that Robbins wanted this to be over, that he had come prepared to name names; he spilled them out with almost no prompting.” Among the eight named are playwrights, actors, and critics—professional acquaintances and friends.
Robbins would go on to try to reconcile his act through his art, working intermittently on an autobiographical drama, The Poppa Piece, that was never staged, partly because of his failure to script the trial scene in a way that satisfied him. Brooding on the episode later, he wrote of a fear not that his homosexuality would be exposed, but that his life’s work would be taken from him.
Jowitt is best in detailing the body of work that would establish Robbins as America’s greatest native-born choreographer of the 20th century, writing often with the critic’s revelatory phrase (at one point citing Robbins’s study of a “denatured” tango, a word that instantly evokes the aberrant encounters of a tango in which the partners never touch). Dance in this period is rolled out in fine, various form—as Cold War cultural export, Method acting, automatic writing, psychoanalysis, and, too, beauty and diversion, even as the NEA dealt with senators who purportedly chanted, arms linked, “Yippee, I’m a performing art!”
Robbins’s first ballet, Fancy Free, choreographed for Ballet Theatre in 1944, coupled him with a then unknown Leonard Bernstein; the tale of sailors on leave made him instantly famous, and thereafter Robbins never lacked for work, moving masterfully between musical theater (including The King and I, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof) and ballet (a contemporary, nymph-less Afternoon of a Faun, the “barely mobile” Watermill, and many others). New York City Ballet—Balanchine’s, but also Robbins’s—was his final home.
Granted unrestricted access to Robbins’s personal and professional papers, Jowitt uses them to great effect, showcasing his working methods (brutal, at times tyrannical) and his many loving and generous personal relationships. Suggestive moments are well chosen, including Robbins’s forced segregation of Jets and Sharks during West Side Story rehearsals (Anybodys, the Jets’ unwanted tagalong, ended up being shunned by both groups), and a late-’50s letter to a newly heartbroken friend, in which Robbins wonders if he might not stand in as beau with this tentative fragment: “the move to become lovers is a little step.”
Jowitt’s biography reveals without judgment a life both troubling and heartening. Perhaps Robbins himself would resist interpretation of life as of dance. Frustrated by critical analysis of his 1969 Dances at a Gathering, he wrote in a letter to the editor of Ballet Review: “There are no stories to any of the dances. . . . There are no plots and no roles.The dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space. Thank you very much.”