Jerome Robbins' New York: An Interview with Julia Foulkes

Today on Gotham, editor Katie Uva sits down with Julia Foulkes, curator of Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York, to talk about how the city shaped his life and art.

Why is Jerome Robbins important to the history of American dance?

Robbins was part of a movement of choreographers and dancers who sought to create an American approach to dance that started in the 1920s and took on force in the 1930s and ‘40s. This movement is most often characterized by the rise of modern dance, led by people like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, who created a way of moving distinct from ballet, which they saw as a European tradition, and also distinct from social dance and vaudeville, which they felt did not convey the intellectual and artistic ideals that inspired them. Robbins was a believer in this effort but ended up not in modern dance but in ballet and Broadway.

In ballet, Robbins shifted the focus of American-themed efforts. Eugene Loring and Agnes de Mille choreographed some of the first ballets that took the U.S. as a topic and both placed their ballets in stories of the American west (Loring created Billy the Kid (1938), and de Mille, Rodeo(1942) — both to music by Aaron Copland). Robbins, on the other hand, looked not to the past, not to mythic stories, and not to the west. He observed the streets of New York around him and conceived of ballets about young people struggling to break forth in the arts or scenes of urban misery, from a homeless man ruthlessly roused by a police officer to vacant souls on a subway. One idea took the inspiration of the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper for a ballet on the history of New York. Eventually he keyed in to a tale of sailors on leave, enjoying their time in the city. Fancy Free debuted in April 1944 to music by Leonard Bernstein.

The idea of Fancy Free then quickly transferred to Broadway as On the Town, which debuted in December of that same year. This set up a pattern of moving between ballet and Broadway that Robbins continued for the next twenty years. He learned the craft of each and interchanged ideas and movements between them. Almost all fused vernacular movement (somersaults, high jinks, popular dance) with more formal balletic technique, what Robbins described as the “ballet puts on dungarees.”

How did New York City shape his early life?

Robbins was born in New York in 1918 but grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, where his mother’s family had settled. His parents were typical of immigrants of the era, arriving with little from eastern Europe and working their way to stability. In the case of Harry and Lena Rabinowitz, Robbins’ parents, this meant working at a deli in Manhattan and moving with two young children across the Hudson River to manage a corset factory with family.

Robbins’ mother is the one who prodded her children to explore a range of artistic activities, from music to drawing to dance. When Robbins graduated from high school in 1935, he attended New York University, dropping out after a year because of the financial difficulties the family business faced and the mediocre grades he earned. His parents expected him to work in the family business, at the corset factory. He asked for a year to pursue his artistic interests; his parents agreed. The exhibition features an excerpt of home movie footage of Robbins dancing on a rooftop with his parents, looking at the skyline of Manhattan, probably from the late 1930s. His feet may have been in New Jersey but his dreams were in New York City.

If you were to map Jerome Robbins' New York, what would be some of the pivotal locations?

Robbins moved from Weehawken to Manhattan in 1940 and never left. He landed first near Carnegie Hall, spent some time in Greenwich Village, then moved to Park Avenue and 55th St., but spent most of his life on the Upper East Side, from 1955 to his death in 1998.

But where he lived does not fully capture Robbins’ New York. One of the most pivotal locations in the visions of the city that he created would have to be the area around Lincoln Center, known as Lincoln Square or San Juan Hill prior to the rise of the performing arts center. This was the area that inspired West Side Story, which initially was called East Side Story and centered on a conflict between Jews and Italian Catholics on the Lower East Side. The idea of creating a musical based on placing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in modern-day New York began in 1949 but soon fizzled. When the creators returned to the idea in 1955, it was much clearer that the current-day conflict was about the influx of Puerto Ricans in New York and the massive urban renewal plan for Lincoln Square. East Side Storybecame West Side Story.

The vision of New York captured in the film of West Side Story firmly placed it the Lincoln Square area, as parts of the prologue to the film were shot on the demolition site created by the urban renewal project. (It turned out that rubble and newly bare land created real-life soundstages that offered space, mise-en-scène, and a variety of perspectives from which to film.) The prologue also featured a playground in Spanish Harlem, on 110th St. between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The Jets jump up in Spanish Harlem and land on 68th Street near Amsterdam Ave.

Robbins’ ballets also conveyed particular visions of New York. Glass Pieces(1983), set to music by Philip Glass, is a kind of stylized Grand Central Station in its opening section. Dancers walk fast with purpose across the stage — on their way — and then burst into a more formal movement. They then resume walking. One friend of Robbins’ picked up on how he crystallized a sense of circulation in the city by declaring that when she crossed 57th Street, she realized, “I was in your ballet.”

Although Robbins was a devout Manhattanite, I would also want to mark the impact of a middle-school production of Fiddler on the Roof in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1968. It occurred at the height of the school teachers’ strike and further heightened tensions between Jews and African Americans there.

Would you say that Jerome Robbins shaped a national cultural conception of New York City? What are the characteristics of New York City as represented in Jerome Robbins' work?

I think Robbins definitely shaped a conception of New York that traveled around the U.S. and the world. West Side Story was the most prominent of these visions because the musical has been staged in over 40,000 productions, from a high school in Finland to a youth group in Gaza and multiple professional touring companies in Asia and Europe. The film has only extended the impact of this New York story, running for five years straight in Tokyo and Paris, for example, after it debuted in 1961. It is touted as one of the top 100 films of the 20th century, and often noted as the best musical on film.

What is characteristic of West Side Story was also true of some of Robbins’ New York-inspired ballets, such as N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz (1958): a focus on youth, which hearkened back to his early ballet ideas and stories, and a tie to contemporary concerns in both story (such as juvenile delinquency) as well as movement (the use of jazz music and movement in Opus Jazz). But I think what’s most characteristic of his city visions is an embrace of both tragedy and joy. He picked up on the anxieties, displacement, and yearning to belong underneath the gloss and proclamations of a modern New York symbolized by new complexes such as Lincoln Center. It’s a chastened portrayal rather than a wholly celebratory one — a wounded, believable place that still holds out hope that this city “is a place for us.”

Who were his most important influences and peers?

The most famous peer to Robbins was Leonard Bernstein. Together they created some indelible masterpieces, beginning with Fancy Free, including ballets such as Age of Anxiety (1950), and peaking in West Side Story. They were born months apart and shared similarly prodigious talent and ambition. Robbins also revered George Balanchine, who inspired him in ballet choreography but also gave him a long-time home at New York City Ballet. He also had long-standing collaborations with the set designer Oliver Smith, the costume designer Irene Sharaff, and the lighting designer Jean Rosenthal. The ballet dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq, who contracted polio in 1956, was also a close confidante and inspiration; Robbins created the ballet Afternoon of a Faun (1953) on her.

Robbins was an inveterate reader, researcher, and observer, but there were two influences that spanned his lifetime. As Robbins turned to dance more decidedly in the 1930s, one particular role captivated him—the puppet Petroushka in Michel Fokine’s ballet to music by Igor Stravinsky. This prompted an interest in puppetry, perhaps both the broken movement as well as the notion of being at the mercy of a puppeteer. Even more, though, the character’s tragic love story may have entranced him. Considered ugly, odd, and a loner, Petroushka is scorned by a ballerina in love with a Moor. Petroushka dies — unloved and betrayed — at the hand of the Moor. “It is me in so many ways,” Robbins wrote in his diary. He performed the role at Ballet Theatre in 1942 under the guidance of Fokine, a high point of his career as a dancer.

Petroushka also came to life for Robbins through the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. An entrancing performer and disarming choreographer, Nijinksy embodied the originality and tragedy of a life committed to artistry. Nijinksy created some of the most iconic works of modernism — Prelude a l’Après-midi d’un Faune [Afternoon of a Faun] (1912) and Le Sacre du Printemps [The Rite of Spring] (1913) — and eventually succumbed to madness. The personal and professional demons — Nijinsky was bisexual — spoke to Robbins. Like Petroushka, Nijinsky would be a constant source of intrigue and interest for Robbins, who attempted to create a film about him in the late 1960s.

Were there other people in the performing or visual arts who shared Jerome Robbins' vision of New York City, or who played off of it in their own work?

Robbins’ vision of New York perhaps most directly influenced Broadway productions. He became the gold standard for a joint director-choreographer and Bob Fosse was an inheritor of that ambition. Fosse benefitted from Robbins’ expertise as director for the musical The Pajama Game (1954), for which Fosse was the choreographer, and he also took up Robbins’ darker view of New York in such shows as Sweet Charity (1966). Fosse, though, may have outdone Robbins in directing film with Cabaret(1972) and All That Jazz (1979).

The work of Twyla Tharp also reflects the influence of Robbins. Like him, she traverses genre, creating minimalist modern dance, then ballets with contemporary topics to popular music, and musicals on stage and film. Tharp choreographed the film Hair (1979), which was shot on location in Central Park, and parallels West Side Story’s use of New York in making a story about a contemporary issue (the Vietnam war) also one about the city (in how class stratifications structure urban life).

More recently, two artists at the top of ballet and Broadway respectively carry on traditions of Robbins. Justin Peck, the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, often combines vernacular and balletic movements in his dances. A promotional video for his recent ballet The Times are Racing (2017) makes that connection explicit by setting the film of the dance in a subway station. The movement, music, and passions are now, here.

And In the Heights (2008), the musical that launched Lin-Manuel Miranda to fame, strikes me as a response to West Side Story. Miranda grew up with a nuanced understanding of the impact of the production on Puerto Ricans as both a blessing — a rare representation — and a curse — perpetuating stereotypes of knife-toting men and sexy, skirt-swishing women. In the Heights is a kind of riposte: a tale of belonging not denied, as in West Side Story, but found — in a heartwarming embrace of the neighborhood of Washington Heights.

As you were working with the New York Public Library's collection, was there any particular piece of archival material that really jumped out at you or surprised you?

Robbins saved everything — it seems — so there is almost constant surprise in journals, sketches, paintings, correspondence, notes, bills, contracts. But one special part of the exhibition is the display of twenty-four accordion diaries he created from 1971 to 1984. Robbins always wrote in journals but these diaries are an assemblage of ticket stubs, pressed flowers, pictures, newspaper headlines, writing aslant and in circles, watercolor sketches — all during a time that he was particularly contemplative and reflective. It’s as if he was literally piecing together his life and his world, for posterity but also as yet another aesthetic expression. The diaries are an intimate view of a complicated, accomplished person — and only tidbits in a documentary have been seen by the public before now. Viewers can sink into them, and into what feels like someone’s very intimate and interior thoughts that took a creative form different from the one for which he was most known.

What do you most hope people will understand about Jerome Robbins after visiting the exhibition?

One idea that has prodded me throughout curating the exhibition is that it does not seem necessary to me that people revere Robbins after seeing it. This may seem like heresy to people who acclaim his genius! There is much to admire, of course, and some characteristics to interrogate, such as a strident expectation and sometimes harsh treatment of others. But my greatest hope is that people come away inspired by how he looked to the world around him — the streets and buildings and parks of his home — as the basis of his creativity. For him, New York was the meeting place between self and world, and his research about and observation of the city infused his art-making, I think even in dances without the topic of the city per se. We do not have to be artists to gain something from this kind of attention and curiosity about the places we inhabit, to enrich our lives by making meaning of where we are.

What should someone watch or read to learn more about Jerome Robbins?

Two excellent biographies render Robbins in full: Deborah Jowitt’s Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (2004) benefits from her expertise as a dance critic; Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins(2006) interweaves more of his personal life with his danceworks and also serves as the basis of a documentary, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About (2008). Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof(2013), by Alisa Solomon, is a fascinating investigation of the enduring meaning of that production. Robbins’ ballet works are also regularly performed by the New York City Ballet as well as ballet companies around the world. The New York City Ballet is hosting special Robbins at 100evenings this October.

Beyond performances and books, I think the film of West Side Story is always worth watching, and I also love a more recent re-imagining of his N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz in a 2010 film that sets the dance in different locations in New York. Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, two New York City Ballet dancers who conceived and produced the film, picked places in the midst of change: the High Line, McCarren Pool, and Coney Island, all before recent redevelopment. It’s an idea I think Robbins would have appreciated.

Julia Foulkes is a professor of history at The New School and the curator of the exhibition "Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York," on view at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center from September 26th to March 30th, 2019. Her most recent book is A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York (2016). She is currently researching the rise of New York as a capital of culture in the 20th century.