Theatre Essays - Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille
An analysis of the life and works of the choreographers Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille and therole of dance in musical theatre
Agnesde Mille and Jerome Robbins worked in musical theatre in what is widelyregarded to be the industry's Golden Era. Many would say that it was theirinnovative approach to choreography in musical theatre that brought an energyand a dynamism to the musical, accounting for its surge in popularity. It iscertainly true that they did much to elevate the role of dance in musicaltheatre, which was previously largely merely as an accessory to the maindramatic event; pretty women with bare flesh parading around the stage.Robbins and De Mille regarded dance as a serious art form and strove to portrayit as such on the stage.
Musicaltheatre as we know it today did not come into being until the twentiethcentury, but song and dance have been a part of theatre for thousands ofyears. From as early as the 5th century BC the Ancient Greeksemployed music and dance in many of their comedies and tragedies to entertainthe public. The Romans carried on this tradition from the 3rdcentury BC, with many plays by Plautus including song and dance. They inventedthe first tap shoes by attaching metal plates to their shoes so that the entireaudience, who would sit in a colossal open-air theatre, could hear the dancesteps (1). In the Middle Ages travelling minstrels and troupes of actors,dancers and singers performed popular songs and slapstick comedy. Thereligious dramas of the 12th and 13th centuries alsoincluded liturgical songs, although no dancing. In the French court of the RenaissanceLouis XIV insisted that song and dance be incorporated into hisentertainments.
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InAmerica, some of the first dramatic roles to be performed by dancers were inmelodrama, which is unsurprising considering the highly stylised movement ofmelodramatic actors lends itself more to dance than to anything else. MlleCeleste, who was later to become one of the most famous dancers of thenineteenth century, was first billed in America as the celebrated melodramaticactress (2). Across the nineteenth century, circuses, showboats andpantomimes all included dance in some form. Stars such as Mlle Celeste andFanny Essler helped create a popular demand for dance and companies began toinclude more elaborate dances in their evening's bill. Melodrama andpantomimes would often incorporate complex ballets into their entertainments.In England the most popular form of entertainment for the working- andmiddle-classes was the music hall, which staged vaudeville entertainment in theway of singers, dancers and speciality acts. Vaudeville was also extremelypopular in America in the nineteenth century, and by the 1890s dance acts wereever more in demand. Dances were still, however, largely performed in betweenthe acts of the main production or before the end-piece to fill the gaps. Therole of dance in the theatre at that time was limited mainly to entr'actes. Theyexisted purely to appease the audience, to showpiece a star, or to titillatepredominantly male audiences with allowing spectacle of female limbs in tights(3). Jack Cole referred to the dances and the dancers in theatre at this timeas wallpaper (4).
Itwasn't really until the 1930s that dance began to be an important part of themusical. George Balanchine, who trained at the Russian Imperial Ballet School beforeworking with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, regarded dance as a legitimateand important component in musical theatre. He believed dance to be thegreatest expressive medium and first introduced ballet onto the popular musicalstage with Ziegfeld Follies. Dancers in the theatre began to be takenseriously, rather than regarded merely as pretty girls baring a lot of leg; Intoa choreographic world that was a mÃÂ©lange of decorative movement, legs and taps,Balanchine opened the door and ballet leapt on to the popular musical stage,directed by a supreme artist (5). Whereas previously only routines hadbeen performed on the theatrical stage, Balanchine choreographed dances.He refused for his dances to be merely bite-size slices of entertainmentsandwiched between the main attraction and insisted that they be part of theplot, integrated seamlessly into the action. For the first time in a musicalthe dances in Balanchine's On Your Toes actually helped to advance theplot. When, in 1982, On Your Toes returned to Broadway, Carol Lawson ofthe New York Times wrote;
On YourToes was a turning point in the history of musical comedy, for Mr.Balanchine's dances were more than mere interludes. Instead they served asessential aspects of the plot, and were thoroughly integrated parts of the production.(6)
Balanchine paved the way for AgnesDe Mille and Jerome Robbins to totally change the dynamics of dance in musicaltheatre, and thereby in musicals has a whole. De Mille introduced the conceptof using dance as a vehicle for story-telling and Robbins transformed the roleof choreographer in a musical to being director of the entire show, makingdance the driving force.
Agnes De Mille
Asa child, although she came from a theatrical family, De Mille was not permittedformal dance training, but would improvise pieces to perform to guests andnightly improvised to the accompaniment of her mother on the Orchestrelle (7).She would practice her melodramatic acting skills every night before performingflexibility exercises to limber up her body in readiness for the stage. Whenin Hollywood with her family her true dancer's instinct became evident as shefell in love with the wide open spaces of the country surrounding the town;this would be a recurring theme in her later choreography. In herautobiography, Dance to the Piper, she exclaimed;
The descendinggrassy slopes filled me with a passion to run, to roll in delirium, to wreck
mybody on the earth. Space means this to a dancer - or to a child! The descentthrough
theair, the finding of earth-footage, the embracing and struggle with thefundamental
ground.These are to a dancer what strong scents are to an animal. (8)
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Theday De Mille first watched Anna Pavlova perform only increased her desire tobecome a dancer. She was enthralled, awed, and dumbstruck, and describes thatmoment with passion and gusto (9). It was this that encouraged de Mille toorganise her first dance show with a group of other girls but she was still notallowed dance lessons and became frustrated with the limited dancing she coulddo. It wasn't until her sister was advised by an orthopaedist to start balletdancing that she too was permitted to attend the Theodore Kosloff School ofImperial Russian Ballet. Whilst there she learnt technique and poise andtrained her body into that of a dancer's. She worked feverishly hard, perhapseven more so because her parents would not allow her to have lessons more thantwice a week, leaving her lagging behind the rest of the class. She resortedto practicing in her mother's bathroom, where she had installed a barre for her.
Bythe time De Mille had finished high school however, she had grown to loath therigours of daily practice and decided to abandon her classes and her solitarypractices and go to college. During her time at UCLA De Mille occasionallystaged dances for student rallies and towards the end of her college life shestarted exercising with the mind to getting back up on her points. She decidedto dance professionally after meeting Douglass Montgomery, who convinced herthat she could. Things were never going to be easy for her though. She movedto New York at a time when dancers [were] hired on the sheen of the stockingand the wink of their agent, and when the few dance companies that existed onBroadway were small and dedicated to the personal exploitation of some star(10). I have mentioned earlier the limited opportunities a dancer had in thistime, where no 'pure' ballet was being performed in either music shows ormoving picture shows and there was no such word as 'choreography'. Whenrehearsing for a concert of her own choreography Montgomery taught De Mille howto act through her dancing; he taught me that every gesture must have someexplicit meaning (11). She decided to perform character studies whereby thedancing revealed personality and was natural in the course of the story. Rightfrom the start she wanted to employ dance as more than light entertainment, asa vital story-telling vehicle. These first attempts, being only charactersketches, were quite light by nature, and the style was folk rather thanballet, but it was different to what anybody else had done on the stage before.When she performed some of these at a concert she was received well but whenshe auditioned for Charles Cochran and Noel Coward they told her that she wasmore suited to the concert hall, and that she would never make it in thetheatre.
Aftertouring with Adolph Bolm, she was commissioned as a dancer-choreographer on ChristopherMorley's revival of The Black Crook but the drunken, noisy audience madeher hand her notice in. It was in the thirties that the dance scene in NewYork began to stir. Every Sunday a couple of dance concerts were given, withsoloists experimenting with every dance form imaginable. De Mille remembers,we were out remodel our entire craft there were no rules we struck sparksfrom one another (12). For five years De Mille taught herself to choreograph,but she was trying to learn to compose dances, not pantomimes, nor dramaticstories, nor character studies, but planned sequences of sustained movementwhich would be original and compelling (13). She viewed dance as a seriousart form and wanted to choreograph dances that would present it as such, butwith barely any formal training behind her she found this very difficult.After disastrously choreographing Flying Colours De Mille and her mothermoved to London where, as in New York, she choreographed and danced in her ownrecitals to critical acclaim but with no financial gain. At one recital though,Marie Rambert and Arnold Haskell were amongst the audience and were impressedenough to ask her to stay in London to continue her recitals and be taught atThe Ballet Club.
Itwas at The Ballet Club that De Mille met Anthony Tudor and Fredrick Ashton,both of whom would go on to become important choreographers and who, with her,would revolutionise the dance world. In 1933 she choreographed the dances forCharles B. Cochran's Nymph Errant in London but during the thirties DeMille returned to America several times, dancing in her uncle's production of Cleopatrain 1934 and choreographing Irving Thalburg's film-version of Romeo andJuliet. On the latter project she had to endure her dances being cut topieces as the camera cut out most of the group work and showed only snippets ofthe rest. The custom at the time was not to show a whole dance but to providelight entertainment with cuttings of dances.
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OnHooray for What De Mille came up against the type of men that insisteddancers were hired for their sex appeal and that dances were performed to sellsex. These were the sort of men that were keeping dance from becoming aserious, important art form and that issued it with only a decorative functionin theatre and films. The management wanted the girls exposed as much aspossible, face front always, bosom bared, legs just visible to the waist, DeMille recalls (14). As she refused to conform exactly, wanting her owncreative input, she was fired with one word, before her choreography was rippedto shreds. Without the security of Equity many of the dancers and actors werefired without warning as the Business Manager exacted his vision of abosoms-and-legs chorus-line extravaganza. At this time on Broadway dances, attheir best, were slick and well-formed, but with no great moments of dramaticrevelation (15). When De Mille returned to Broadway some years later she wasto dramatically change this notion.
In1940 Ballet Theatre was formed and De Mille was invited to become one of thechoreographers, on the understanding that she was not to dance herself. It wasa highly creative time for De Mille and she was able to work with some of thefinest dancers and choreographers of the time. It was at Ballet Theatre thatDe Mille created her first ballet, Black Ritual, a controversial piecewith black dancers; the first time this had ever been attempted by a seriousballet company. Having had only brief and frenzied flurries with commercialtroupes of mixed prostitutes and chorus dancers she had not had the experienceof setting a schedule of choreographing and rehearsing and was extremelynervous. Her dancers did not help matters by being consistently late and byarriving unprepared. The ballet was not received well but shortly after shewas hired by a successful booking manager for a national tour. De Mille andher dancers prepared for the tour through blood, sweat and tears but it was atotal success, and De Mille discovered something vital: although the managersmay not, the public liked and appreciated her work.
Notlong after returning to New York, De Mille was asked by Ballet Theatre tocreate Three Virgins and a Devil, which was a huge hit and dÃÂ©buted theyoung Jerome Robbins. In 1942 she was commissioned to create a ballet for theBallet Russe de Monte Carlo. She extended a piece she had partly choreographedyears earlier, and Rodeo was the result. The ballet formed the basisfor a uniquely American dance style, using folk themes, tap dance andenergetic, fast-paced movements, capturing the essence of a cowboy's manner.Teaching male dancers who were used to the precision and elegance of balletproved to be difficult so De Mille resorted to acting lessons to help herdancers find their characters. She wanted them to be cowboys; shewanted them to communicate dramatic meaning. Come opening night they wereprepared and the audience adored them. De Mille had created an entirely newand exciting dance style; it was the first of its kind, and the moment wasquick with birth (16). De Mille successfully turned ballet into musicalcomedy, and gave the form real energy and gusto, with movements never beforeseen in this very precise of dance forms.
Wehad breached the bulwarks De Mille exclaims in Dance to the Piper (17).She, with a few choreographers before her, had created a new tradition, onewith a different root impulse to traditional ballet. She asserts that tocreate a style that truly differs from ballet one must base that style onanother technique. De Mille integrated folk dances into her work, withoutlowering the performances to comedy caricatures. Her work, like that of fellowchoreographer Anthony Tudor, conveyed theatrical meaning through dance steps;the line between actor and dancer was blurred. Rather than dancers usingtraditional technique and performing well-known steps, where the human bodiesare used merely as units of design, grouped, lumped, and directed intopredetermined masses, De Mille strove for originality and dramaticcommunication in her choreography. She writes of Tudor's work;
Tudordeveloped the story-telling quality of his choreography to such a degree thateach gesture, formed out of the emotional components of the moment, is almostas explicit as though the dancers spoke. The new choreography does not arrangeold steps into new patterns; the emotion evolves steps, gestures, and rhythms. (18)
Reading De Mille'sexplanation of her method for creating dance in Dance to the Piper, oneis reminded of a director beginning to stage a play. She spends much time oncharacterisation; finding the right gestures and stance for each character actsas a stimulus for the choreographic process (19). De Mille did not createimpersonal dancers but characters acting out, through dance, a story.
Fromthe success of Rodeo, as well as for its all-American style and theme,De Mille was asked by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to choreographdances for their new production, Oklahoma! De Mille knew the projectwas going to be difficult as, unlike ballet where the choreographer is themaster and ruler of the show, many elements other than dance contribute to formmusical theatre. The performers must take direction from the director, thecomposer, the author of the book, and the producer. The dance director gotlittle say in the arrangement. Singing and acting were the main components inmusical theatre at the time; dance was merely for decoration. When casting thedancers, De Mille insisted on talent and personality, Rodgers wanted faces,although his idea of a face had frequently to do with the character in it,but Mamoulian, the director, wanted slim legs above all (20). It was assumedthat the public, also, were far more interested in the singing and the dramathan the dancing. The numbers of dances were therefore limited. De Milleinsisted, however, that every dancer was hired for just one reason - that heor she was the best available performer for the role (21). She did not cavein to the whim of the director; she wanted her dancers to be seriousprofessionals, and Rodgers agreed. Once, during rehearsals, a note was playedout of tune and one of the chorus' faces winced with pain, but it was notannoyance or amusement, it was agonised concern. When Rodgers saw herexpression - one he had never seen cross a chorus girl's face - he realisedthat responsible artists had entered the ranks (22). The chorus dancers wereno longer pretty faces, good legs but nothing between the ears; everyperformer, including the dancers, knew their craft. Another difficulty DeMille would have was that the dances would have to be created from the impetusof the book, they would have to build the author's line and develop his action(23), rather than being created from scratch from characters developed by her.De Mille was also faced with the problem of swiftly travelling from dialogue,to song, to dance, and back to dialogue again without it looking farcical. Asthe choreographer she was going to have to learn surgery, to graft and splice(23).
DeMille achieved all this and more. She succeeded in elevating her role aschoreographer to that of equal importance with the playwright, the composer andthe lyricist, and she did what no choreographer had successfully done before -she integrated the ballets into the story. Her dancers were not merelydecoration but characters, and she worked with them to achieve depth ofcharacter, motivation and emotion. Dancers could no longer project theirpersonal response to a piece of music. They needed to move as the charactersthey were portraying. Their reactions, their facial expressions, all needed tofurther the audience's understanding of their character. This requiredin-depth script readings and analysis of character motivations, just as adirector would insist on for his or her actors. De Mille realised that this canreally help the dancer. Whereas in ballet the dancer has to rely on what theyfeel to give the dance energy and dynamism, they now had the singing and actingto give them background and motivation to help give their dancing, as thesecharacters, expressive movement (24). If the role of dance in Oklahoma!was to communicate dramatic meaning to the audience, and to further the plot,the dancer had to become the character, and know it inside-out.
AsDe Mille herself notes, it was Anthony Tudor who first shocked audiences intoviewing a ballet dancer as an individual capable of dramatic communicationthrough her body, by clothing them in long Edwardian dresses (25). No longerwas the ballet dancer the stylised, typical image that made it acceptable forwomen to bare their legs and arms and wrap their limbs around a man. She wasnow familiar; like their mothers and aunties. They could now communicate humantruths and take part in the telling of a story. Dressed as the characters of aSouth-western town, rather than tights and a tutu, the audience was able to seethe dancers as humans with a story to tell.
Thecrowning glory of De Mille's choreography on Oklahoma! was without doubtthe dream-ballet which occurs at the end of Act 1. With this De Milleexperimented with something entirely new in musical theatre, and for many yearsto come barely a musical was made without it containing a dream ballet. Inthis extended ballet Laurie acts out her quandary through dance; a highlyimaginative method of moving the story forward. Dance was inextricably boundto the plot of the musical. Whereas in previous musicals dance was merely aside entertainment and could be cut without the story losing any of itsmeaning, one could not take the dream ballet out of Oklahoma! withoutruining the plot. By using dance the thoughts and feelings in the mind and theheart of Laurie could be conveyed and explored far more effectively thanthrough straight dialogue. The dances were intended to strengthen theaudience's understanding of the characters and further the plot, as well ascomplement the lyrics and the dialogue, and it worked. Now, as well as singingand acting, dancing added to the dramatic impact of the musical on theaudience.
AsKislan notes, dance also adds to the important theme of open space in Oklahoma.It is the guiding metaphor for the promise of the American Dream and thelimitless opportunities for the 'brand new state' the lovers are destined tolive in (26). The audience is always aware of the physical space on stage asthe dancers never seem crowded, no matter how many occupy the space. In thedream ballet Curly lifts Laurie up in the air, reaching for the sky, and theballetic style danced in constantly opens the body up, extending arms and legsto give the impression of limitless space. In Dance to the Piper DeMille writes of the sense of space ballet dancers work with; Every joint andsinew is pulled long, the arms are wide and free the stretching up and out,the liberating jump, the racing over and away from the earth (27). Thefeeling of space conveyed on stage through dance complements the songs, withlyrics such as plenty of room to swing a rope/plenty of heart and plenty ofhope (28).
Atlast dance as more than an accessory, but as a serious art form, had arrivedonto the popular stage, and the audience were roaring. They were howling.People hadn't seen girls and boys dance like this in so long. Of course, theyhad been dancing like this, but not just where this audience could see them(29). Perhaps the most important accomplishment for dance in Oklahoma!was that De Mille was a choreographer on the show, not a dance director. Thedifference being that dance directors worked for audience approval;choreographers work for audience enlightenment (30). Her dances were integralto the story - they added and enlightened rather than decorated. This was anew role for dance in musical theatre.
DeMille went on to choreograph the dances for many more Broadway musicals in the1940s and 1950s, including One Touch of Venus in 1943, Carousel in 1945, Brigadoon in1947, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949, and Paint Your Wagon in1951. Tally-Ho(1944) and FallRiver Legend (1948) provided her with the opportunity to further herrevolutionary style. She continued to cast dancers that were skilled at projectingcharacter as well as performing the correct steps. Kislan records that dancersthat worked with De Mille have testified to her fantastic ability to sense eventhe smallest dramatic quality in their dancing, and, together, manage to set itfree and integrate it into the choreography so that the dance is alwaysexpressive of the drama (31).
De Mille was still responsible to the director, the lyricist andthe author of the book though. Her choreography had to fit the other elementsof the musical, and dance was often of secondary importance to those elements.Choreographers such as Jerome Robbins were to change the role of thechoreographer, and thus the role of dance in musical theatre, forever. Banishedwas the mindless aesthetics that enslaved dance to the colossal, opulent, andlavish needs of the producer, the star, or the specialty act (32). Dance wasto be given the highest status of the production. The choreographer was torule the show. Indeed, the choreographer would no longer be merely the dancecreator, but the director-choreographer; the dance-director follows, thechoreographer adapts, but the director-choreographer leads (32). JeromeRobbins was a pioneer of this change in status for the role of dance in musicaltheatre.
Robbinswas born into a devoutly Jewish family in 1918, but resented being Jewish, withits conservatism and old ways. His large family, however, provided him withmany theatrical contacts and influences. His uncle, Jack Silverman, startedout as a ballroom dancer with the two men he was living with, Bing Crosby andGeorge Raft. Edward G. Robinson was also related, and another of Robbins'uncles, Daniel Davenport, owned a chain of vaudeville and burlesque theatres.Davenport's father and his brother performed on the vaudeville circuit underthe name of the Davenport Brothers, staging acrobatic acts. It is to this partof the family that Robbins owes his zest for vaudeville-comedy.
Robbins'parents ensured that both their children were educated in the arts, and this iswhere Jerome shone. He saw it as an escape route, a way by which he could haveaccess to the possibilities which lay beyond his community; When I was a childart seemed like a tunnel to me. At the end of that tunnel, I could see lightwhere the world opened up, waiting for me (33). Both he and his sister,Sonia, were strongly encouraged by their mother to aspire to the stage. Soniatook dance lessons and Jerome music lessons, and by the time he was three and ahalf he was composing pieces and giving recitals on the piano. Indeed, heexcelled in anything creative that he tried, but admitted that this wasbecause, the only world that was really exciting for me was the world in whichI could make believe that things were not the way they were (33). The worldof musical theatre was therefore the perfect world for him, later, to live in.
Robbinshad to keep his love of dance a secret from his parents, especially his father,and his school friends, who were all into sports. As his sister danced her wayinto the spotlight Jerome was left practicing in private, often with the helpof Sonia. At the Weehawken schools he attended Robbins performed in manyschool plays, but it was at his summer camps that he fell in love with Gilbertand Sullivan musicals, and played the comic leads in HMS Pinafore, TheMikado, and Pirates of Penzance. Jerome's knack for comedy was madeevident through his performances in these roles. A fellow camper latercommented, Jerry had a tremendous sense of humour in everything he did (34).He still kept his dancing a secret though. At one parent's day at the camphowever, Robbins performed a dance on the table-tennis table and, as anothercamper remembers, had the adults in tears. Furthermore, This was a bigaudience and he was completely uninhibited (34).
Robbinseventually took dance lessons with Sonia's dance teacher in modern dance, theform that was the emerging trend in the Depression years of the 1930s, whenpeople wanted a dance form that could more readily express the social realismsof the time than could ballet. Jerome witnessed many pioneering greats of thedance stage, such as Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey, but in1932 he was to meet the man he would later call his 'guru', Gluck Sandor (35).Sandor directed, choreographed and danced in many of the productions staged atthe Dance Centre, at which Sonia danced. He worked in vaudeville and onBroadway in the 1920s and was a tremendously expressive dancer, manipulatingevery gesture for dramatic effect, which was to a have profound influence onRobbins' future work. As Robbins himself has cited, We dancers were taught toperform with the concentration of an actor (36). Anzia Kubicek, a dancer,remembers that Sandor, preferred to do things with a story line hisimagination would just go a mile a minute, and he worked with the bodies he hadto work with, which were sometimes very limited (37). Robbins would work withboth principles in his choreography, starting with a story from which hisdancers could develop their characters, and therefore their movements.
Aftergraduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1935 Robbins entered New YorkUniversity to study Chemistry, but in his second year his father's corsetbusiness was in danger of going bankrupt and he could no longer fullyfinancially support Jerome's education. Jerome was by this point desperate todrop out and follow his dream of becoming a professional dancer and, throughhis sister, he managed to successfully audition for an apprenticeship withSandor's company. With the help of Sandor, Jerome convinced his parents tolet him try to make it as dancer, and he left the university. Sandor persuadedan unconvinced Robbins to concentrate on ballet rather than modern dance but itwasn't until he saw Alexandra Danilova perform with the Ballet Russes that Robbinsagreed that ballet held many opportunities for him. Jerome progressed quicklyand Sandor recognised him as a natural dancer, recalling years later;
Oncehe saw something, he could do it backward. Before I would do a thing he had it.He could anticipate what was to come. He was sensitive and he was musical. (38)
In1937 Robbins secured his first part in The Brothers Ashkenazi, whichintensified his passion for the theatre. Throughout its run he would practiceon the barre, much to the bewilderment of the Yiddish cast of the play. Hisfellow performers recall him constantly dancing (39). After two years trainingat the Dance Centre, and having procured roles in various plays, Robbins leftthe company in search of more commercial work. He found work in the chorus ofa number of musicals which, in the thirties, were largely comic. AlthoughRobbins went on to choreograph and dance in such musicals, he also wanted totake the medium further, and use musical theatre as a vehicle for explorationinto the human psyche. He would later say, Musicals tend to be facetious. Noone has ever used them as a medium to depict deep personal struggle, and Ithink this can be done (40). He would go on to do just that.
Aswell as his brief encounters with Broadway, in the summer of 1937 Robbins startedworking as part of the entertainment staff at Camp Tamiment, a summer job hewould have for five years. The resort played host to many up-and-comingtalents, such as Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, and Carol Channing. It was avirtual breeding ground for musicians, comedians, singers and dancers. Robbinschoreographed and danced in many of the performances held in the social hall.It was a very creative atmosphere, with new productions performed every week.Max Lieberman, director of the entertainment program at Tamiment, strove forBroadway-quality pieces, and with only a week to create and rehearse each one,ideas had to flow. Robbins' work was of two extremes; burlesque sketches onthe one hand and socially serious dramatic dances such as Strange Fruit andDeath of a Loyalist on the other. Some of his pieces were performed atthe 92nd Street YMHA, under the auspices of the Theatre ArtsCommittee, as well as in the Straw Hat Revue, which Tamiment opened onBroadway in 1939. The revue was an amalgamation of many of the sketchesperformed at that summer's camp but, due to the sensitive atmosphere followingthe outbreak of war in Europe, they were only allowed to include the comedysketches. Robbins suffered a huge blow to his ego when Jerome Andrews, who hadbeen brought in by the backers to supervise the dances, was given sole crediton the billing for the choreography. It did however give him a determinationto be wholly in charge of any choreography in future productions, and led to hislater fashioning of the role of the all-controlling director-choreographer.
Inthe summer of 1940 Robbins joined Ballet Theatre and was taught by some of thegreat choreographers of the day, including Tudor and De Mille. They trainedRobbins and his fellow students to act as well as dance, and taught thatdancers must not only be able to perform steps accurately but must also be ableto express the dramatic content of dance. He danced in the corps in manyballets at this time, among them Anthony Tudor's Goya Pastoral. Robbinslearnt much from Tudor, whose ability as a story-teller through dance was hisforte. This was the kind of dance Robbins wanted to see in musicals, for whileother choreographers were interested in steps and decorative movement, Tudorwas devoted to examining human passions and relationships (41). Robbins wouldtake much of what he learnt whilst working with Tudor and use it as astarting-block for his own expressive choreography.
Robbinswas soon promoted to solo roles, his first as the Youth in De Mille's ThreeVirgins and a Devil. He was lauded for his expressive movements andgestures, which made his an incredibly funny character to watch. De Mille'sinfluence led Robbins further into the field of acting, by introducing him to agood friend of hers, Mary Hunter, who had recently established a theatre groupcalled the American Actors Company. She showed him the process ofimprovisation which greatly influenced and improved the theatricality of hisdancing and choreography. He realised that, having started dancing relativelylate in life, he didn't have the technical skills, but his acting experienceprovided him with a dramatic flair.
Thegreatest solo performance of his early career was as the puppet in Petrouchka,and his preparation for the role was intense. He studied pictures of thepuppet in minute detail, trying desperately to capture the essence ofPetrouchka in order to get every single gesture just right. He prepared as anactor would prepare for a role, trying to find the character's motivation, hisemotions, thoughts and feelings, so that he could feed that into hismovements. In this way every gesture conveyed dramatic meaning. The criticsand the audience raved about him and he became one of the leading dancers ofthe company.
Robbinsdesperately wanted to choreograph his own ballets for Ballet Theatre andeventually was given the chance to after an idea he pitched to them, of aballet about three young sailors on leave in Manhattan, was given the go-aheadand Fancy Free was born.He gave each of the dancers exactdetail of the characters they were playing, and he expected an exactperformance in return (42). Like De Mille on Oklahoma!, Robbins pickeddancers that were the most appropriate for the roles, and the result was anincredibly tight, character-driven ballet which became a smash-hit. JohnMartin reported in the Times, He has managed to get into thislight-hearted little piece of American genre the same quality of humour whichhas always characterised his personal dancing, the same actor's sense of thetheatre (43). Each character had a unique personality, which was portrayedbrilliantly in the dancing, especially in the individual dances where eachtries to woo the girl. He integrated classical ballet with modern dance formsand images of contemporary American culture in a way that no-one had seen onthe stage before.
Perhapsinevitably, Fancy Free was turned into a Broadway musical entitled Onthe Town, and contained the highest number of dances of any Broadway showyet. In Oklahoma! the dances moved the story forward but in On theTown the dances actually hold the production together. The essence of thewhole production, commented Leonard Bernstein, is contained in these dances(44). Importantly, there is no attempt to make the dances realistic; thecharacters in On the Town dance as naturally as they sing and speak, andthe audiences accepted this. Robbins successfully further grounded dance inmusical theatre as an essential story-telling element.
FollowingOn the Town every musical Robbins worked on contained essentialstory-telling elements - a plot, characters, and a point. Billion DollarBaby, High Button Shoes, and Look, Ma, I'm Dancin' were allconceived around a solid story with strong characters, and with the plot andaudience understanding of the characters both furthered by the dances. In Look,Ma, I'm Dancin', a partly-autobiographical show about an incrediblyambitious, hard-working dancer-choreographer and the rich heiress that backshis company, the two ballets Robbins creates illustrate the changes theprotagonist's character makes. In the first he is cock-sure, loud andenergetic and the ballet mirrors this, being fast-paced, complex, and full ofyouthful exuberance. The second ballet is calmer, reflective and altogethermore heartfelt, indicating his changed mood and the fact that he has come toreflect on his life and what he values most. The ballets have a more profoundeffect on the musical than any of his others as, They grow out of the hero'spersonality and in that way they develop the story (45).
Throughoutthe 1940s Robbins had continued dancing at Ballet Theatre but in 1949 he leftto join Balanchine's fledgling New York City Ballet, where he was almostinstantly appointed Associate Artistic Director. He danced with the companyuntil the mid-1950s but his choreography was his most important contribution tothe company. His works contained his trademark theatricality and were infusedwith modern dance forms and music. His work in musical theatre continuedalongside his residency at City Ballet, with his most important piece in theearly 1950s being The King and I. This proved to be one of his toughestchallenges yet, as his largely Western set of dancers had to learn and performa variety of Eastern dance forms. His most important piece in The King andI is undoubtedly the ballet, 'The Small House of Uncle Thomas', into which waspoured historical information, researched oriental dance forms, and personalcreativity. Stylised gesture and movement, masks and mime, all feature but donot overwhelm the other aspects of the dance, such as the comedy of theballet. The ballet also helped convey one of the central themes of themusical; that love and reason can overcome cultural differences and racism.
In1957 Robbins embarked on what was to become his greatest achievement in musicaltheatre yet; West Side Story. The challenge for the collaborators of WestSide Story was, according to Robbins, to see if all of us - Lenny[Bernstein] who wrote 'long-hair' music, Arthur [Laurents] who wrote seriousplays, myself who did serious ballets, Oliver Smith who was a serious painter -could bring our acts together and do a work on the popular stage The idea wasto make the poetry of the piece come out of our best attempts as seriousartists (46). Robbins' motivating force was to totally integrate the book,score, choreography, and design of highbrow artists and bring it to the commercialstage. Although there were other major contributors to West Side Storythe musical was conceived, directed and choreographed by one man, Robbins, andas such was the first of its kind. West Side Story furthers the ideasthat Oklahoma! first suggested, that musicals can be totally integratedso that every element works together to support the underlying themes, its plotand its characters.
Forthe first time in a musical, rather than cast a chorus and principal dancers,an ensemble of forty performers was cast who could all sing, act and dance, toenable West Side Story to be a truly integrated show. The dramaticcommunication inherent in all the dances was very important to Robbins. Heundertook extensive research into gang culture, including in-depth observationof, and conversations with, teenage gang members on the west side. Once heknew what he wanted to portray he instilled it in his performers using Method Actingtechniques. The rival gangs (the Sharks and the Jets) weren't allowed tosocialise with each other even offstage and in between rehearsals. He wantedto build a resentment and a mistrust between the gangs that would come out intheir performances. He also wanted each performer to know their charactersinside-out. Chita Rivera, who played the lead female role, recalls Robbinstalking to her about her character;
Weused to sit and just talk about the character. I'd never talked aboutsomething I didn't know about before, a person, and he talked in colours andtextures, that sort of thing. It was just a fascinating way to dissect aperson and why they existed. (47)
For each element to cometogether in performance, everything had to be tight, and Robbins took on thejob of seeing that every aspect of the show was watertight.
Forthe first time in musical theatre, dance was an absolutely equal partner to thewords and the music. If anything, lyrics and song served the dancing (48).The highly stylised movements and gestures of the dancers effectivelycommunicated the tensions between the gangs and the personalities of the characters.Furthermore, dance is employed to move the plot forward in the least amount oftime possible. For example, dance initiates and introduces the audience to theconflict between the Jets and Sharks in the 'Prologue', it advances theconflict during the 'Dance at the Gym' and it concludes the action in 'TheRumble' (49). The 'Dance at the Gym' also provides an emotional facet withoutstalling the action of the drama. Much happens between Tony and Maria in ashort amount of stage time. Through dance they meet and fall in love in onlyforty measures of music. If the scene was dialogue-led it would have takentriple the amount of time. Further, acting out this tender first love scenewithout words makes it far more emotional and sensitive.
Robbinscontinued to choreograph and direct Broadway musicals, each totally integratedto create a tight, seamless production. His background in both musical theatreand ballet, combined with his many skills, gave him the ability to approach ashow with the over-all perspective with which to blend all the elements into ahomogenous, seamless, whole. He became a director-choreographer, with fullcontrol over the production, elevating dance to the highest status.
AgnesDe Mille and Jerome Robbins both contributed greatly to the changing role ofdance in musical theatre. De Mille started the trend for integrated musicals,ensuring that dance furthered the plot, and provided her dancers with dramaticgestures and features, studying character motivation and emotions with them.Robbins further advanced the importance of the role of choreographer todirector-choreographer, making dance the essential element of the show. Dancebecame not merely the support for the main theatrical show, but the showitself. Not only did this change in role for dance benefit dancers by creatingmore opportunities and raising the importance of the medium they worked in, butmusical theatre itself evolved into a far more creative art. With a singledirector-choreographer overseeing the entire production, the actors, singersand dances could far more easily work together.
Hubert Saal, writing in Newsweekten years after Robbins first started on Broadway, asserted;
danceremains the essence of the Broadway musical Body English is an eloquentlanguage all its own. It may only be heightened or stylised movement, or ameans of changing pace, or a stageful of exuberant bodies displaying rawenergy, but the excitement of Broadway rhythm is as strong as ever The newbreed of choreographers, following such ground-breakers as Jerome Robbins,Agnes De Mille and Bob Fosse, has gone to great pains in their efforts tointegrate dance into the plot. (50)
Thanks to the innovativenessof choreographers such as De Mille and Robbins, and their frustration with thelimited role danced played in musical theatre, dance is now an important andfully integrated element of any musical. The pinnacle of their success wasprobably the occasion, for West Side Story, that the first box in aprogramme was posted with the words, Entire production, direction, andchoreography by Jerome Robbins (51). From that moment on, dance would beforever integral to musical theatre.
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