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Home » ESSAYS/ SCHOLARSHIP » “Three Dead White Guys: BALANCHINE, ROBBINS & FOSSE: CHOREOGRAPHY AND THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICAN VISION” Danse International Magazine, Winter 2002

“Three Dead White Guys: BALANCHINE, ROBBINS & FOSSE: CHOREOGRAPHY AND THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICAN VISION” Danse International Magazine, Winter 2002

POETRY

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Dance International Magazine

Dance International Magazine

In a conversation about the Golden Age of the Broadway musical, a character created by John Guare asked, “Why were the musicals [from 1932 to 1964] so great?  For one reason alone.  There were no ballet companies …Lincoln Kirstein thinks he’s doing the world this big favor by founding New York City Ballet.  He hires Balanchine, who never does another show.  It’s corporate raiding.  By 1964, the plundering was through.  Jerome Robbins did his last Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof …Fosse…moved in with a new kind of show-dancing, but it wasn’t ballet…I go to NYCB.  I see Robbins’s I’m Old Fashioned, Glass Pieces, they break my heart.  All I think is they would have been great numbers in Broadway shows.”

Since the establishment of ballet as a form of performance, each century is has produced a handful of great choreographers, often – but not always – clustered at a single locus.  In the eighteenth century Jean-George Noverre and Maximilien Gardel dominated in Paris.  In the nineteenth, the center of dance thought moved eastward, with Petipa, to Russia. However, it is in America that the great twentieth century flowering of dance took place. This development stemmed from a single man, George Balanchine, and through him not only ballet, but theatre dance experienced transformation in the hands of, first, Jerome Robbins, and later, Bob Fosse.

Hired by Diaghilev to replace Bronislava Nijinska as a composer of opera ballets, Balanchine was, at 21, ballet master of the world’s finest, most innovative company, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. From Diaghilev he learned staging and the value of bringing together the best work available in a variety of fields to create new ballets.  He said, “It is because of Diaghilev that I am whatever I am today.” But Balanchine was independent, too, and could abandon Diaghilev’s influence without a glance backward – as seen in his frequent eliminations of costumes and sets – his so-called “black and white” ballets.

Neoclassicism, the style Balanchine eventually embraced, is grand in manner without being pompous.  It is inventive, lucid, witty, ironic, sometimes poignant, and full of the pleasures of the dance. With his ballet, Apollo (1928), he summoned this precision and richness, and in so doing created a work of originality that impressed even the avant guard. The theme of Apollo is creativity itself, energetic, crystalline, refined. Prodigal Son, following in 1929, was entirely different, wrenching, disturbing, harsh in its vision.  It was a pattern that held sway until the year he died: the assemblage of ballets that differed radically in scope, style and theme, one following another, sometimes in a matter of weeks.

Balanchine’s most important relationship was with Igor Stravinsky, whose artistic vision emerged from the same post-war ferment that informed Balanchine’s. The dynamic personal relationship enjoyed by these two artists overflowed into the composition method itself. For example, during the creation of Orpheus, in 1948, Stravinsky asked Balanchine about the length of the pas de deux.

“Oh,” Balanchine replied, “about two and a half minutes.”

“Don’t say ‘about,’” Stravinsky said reprovingly. “There is no such thing as ‘about’. Is it two minutes, two minutes and fifteen seconds, two minutes and thirty seconds, or something in between?”

As a choreographer, Balanchine explored spheres of movement not seen before in ballet, and made his discoveries a part of the dance vocabulary. He was able to demonstrate, without dancing a part full out, the essence of a movement, so that dancers would mourn their inability to reproduce the elegance, the gusto, the earthiness – whatever the part required – that Balanchine demonstrated in the studio. His understanding of music freed him from what Stravinsky called “the tyranny of the beat,” and he was able to create dance phrases that have independence and integrity of their own, yet are linked to the music’s internal patterns. Balanchine believed that if ballet is any good, it doesn’t need program notes or other explanation, only the title and composer. “The curtain should just go up and if the spectators understand what’s going on it’s good, and if not, not.”

Balanchine shared an office and artistic directorship of New York City Ballet for 20 years with Jerome Robbins, who composed only three ballets before hooking up with Balanchine, Fancy Free, Interplay, and Facsimile. The Guests was his first ballet for NYCB. Balanchine gave Robbins tremendous support during the composition of this first work, offering not only dancers and space, the raw materials, but educated interest and encouragement. “Here I was, just a young choreographer, and there was the master of our age bringing in props to help me, as if he were some fourth assistant to the stage manager,” Robbins reported with amazement.

As a businessman, Robbins worked hard for fair billing, credit and wages when choreographers were notoriously underpaid and undervalued.  Like many of his colleagues even now, he felt the scorn of people in his own profession and of the public, who felt dance was not real work. From Balanchine, Robbins learned the key to satisfaction in the creative life: it’s the work itself that counts not the success of it. “He made me see that the work was more important than the success, that work in progress was what mattered most.”

Highly sensitive to the idea of his Jewishness and “outsider” status, Robbins reflected upon, with his work, the conflicts that determined his personality.  These include: passion to succeed as an American; longing for the traditions of the old country; desire for intimacy and all that surrender of ego might entail; and the necessity to create. This urgency to make dances for public consumption was supported – necessarily – by an enormous ego.  It is impossible that it be otherwise. Without the certainty that one’s work is valid and worthy, the self-exposure it requires would be intolerable.

As a dancer, Robbins had a knack for upstaging ballerinas with his inventive comic turns and mischievous sense of humor.  Agnes de Mille noted the rapidity with which he learned difficult combinations. Great dance critic Edwin Denby was moved by the nuances of expression that allowed Robbins to embody a role unforgettably, as in Petrouchka, where he had “a forlorn, sawdust quality that lingers in the memory even after 40 years.”

As a choreographer, Robbins continued to perform in Balanchine’s dances while creating some of his own best ballets and theatre pieces.  These include: The Concert, Age of Anxiety, Afternoon of a Fawn, Dances at a Gathering, On the Town, The King and I, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Pan, and West Side Story. In spite of thorough preparation, Robbins tended to study his work in progress by creating a number of variants.  Dancers rehearsing his ballets often had to remember multiple versions of the same basic phrase.  He was also continually on the lookout for accidents in the studio that might be borrowed to create an exciting moment.

Robbins’ most powerful and defining collaboration was with composer Leonard Bernstein with whom he worked on several of his most well known Broadway shows. The two men had in common the goal of using dance theatre to convey “pertinent ideas about ourselves and our world.”  The Guests, like West Side Story, explores class conflict.  On the Town contained the first truly integrated cast.  It has been suggested that Robbins and Bernstein as artists and as human beings lived “in two worlds simultaneously…able to see into both…and to translate for the audience.”

Bob Fosse, in some ways Robbins’ Broadway protégé, was progenitor of a pure Broadway dance style that was, perhaps, a happy consequence of his lack of ballet experience. The splayed fingers, the thirties-era bowler hat tipped forward or to one side, and the basing in dark, funny scripts that take humorous shots at cherished institutions are all elements of Fosse’s style.

Fosse revolutionized dance on Broadway by infusing a jazz-inspired sensibility with gritty, burlesque-style movements. He created light-hearted, comedic sequences along side sexy, down-and-dirty dance numbers that suggest, often with great irony, the temporality of pleasure and passion. There is something tongue-in-cheek, in Gwen Verdon’s strip-tease romp, “What Lola Wants” (Damn Yankees), in the frank appeal to the wallet in “Big Spender” (Sweet Charity), or in the bruised limbs of the ensemble dancers in Cabaret. The plot reversals and sexually explicit humor disguise universal themes of personal identity and role-playing, exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised, and the inevitability of human suffering, recovery and renewal.

Certainly these are matters about which Fosse had first-hand knowledge. Inspired by the dancers he met at the dive clubs where he first performed, his choreography contained a characteristic  ferocity and subtlety teristic throughout his career. Fosse dancers move with a loose-jointed, declarative pinache. Heads bob. Pelvises thrust. Shoulders arch and revolve. Knees knock. Eyes roll. Heels kick clownishly high. Perhaps the most engaging quality in his body of work is its tender reference to vaudeville.

The jazz style Fosse created has become the measuring rod for contemporary theatre dance, and is as evident on Broadway as it is in music videos. Hip-hop, disco, and funk all borrow from his work.  The 1999 Broadway revue, Fosse, was a greatest–hits collection of Fosse’s most celebrated song-and-dance numbers, and played at New York’s Broadhurst Theatre for more than 1,000 performances, closing in August 2001. Its repertory included pieces from his most popular productions, and featured veteran Broadway stars such as Ann Reinking and Candy Buckley, New York City Ballet principal Julio Bocca and soloist Edwaard Liang, and American Ballet Theatre’s Desmond Richardson. Fosse’s choreography has also become the subject of a wonderfully filmed installment of Great Performances: Dance in America, airing on public television stations this season.

Since the deaths of these choreographers, there has been great flap about the tensions sometimes felt in the studio between themselves and those who danced for them. In Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic (1998), Edward Villella relates a humorous anecdote that perfectly illustrates the conflict.  Villella was rehearsing a ballet, and was suffering from pain caused by an at-that-time undiagnosed joint condition.  He was frustrated with the part itself.  He didn’t believe he had time enough to learn it.  In sum, he was grumbling, or at least emitting dissatisfied vibrations.  One afternoon, George Balanchine summoned him to the basement of the State Theater, and began to dig through some boxes of dusty, abandoned costumes. At last he resurrected a bright orange tunic, and a pair of garish yellow tights.

“Put these on,” he commanded.

Feeling foolish, Villella complied. The effect, apparently, was not good, but Balanchine was delighted.

“Perfect!” he announced with a flourish, then strode away, leaving Villella to absorb the lesson: If you’re going to play the fool, why not dress like one?

At the heart of this antagonism was a debate about what is most important.  For Balanchine, the answer was always, even during the well-publicized debacle with Suzanne Farrell, dance.  For Jerome Robbins and for Bob Fosse, the value was similar.  Dancers who threatened to quit were told some version of: “Good thing you decided.  Go in peace.” Dancers who failed to appear in company class or rehearsal simply were not cast. But with Balanchine no longer around to set and exceed the standard, nor Robbins, nor Fosse, nor their colleagues, (and someday, not even their students), how will their choreography survive? Some already say it has not. Maria Tallchief has noted leveling in sequences created for her in the years of American Ballet Company and Ballet Society, for example. Some, of course, is preserved on film, and the Broadway shows, at least for now, continue to experience revivals. Balanchine, who lived his life very satisfactorily in the present, may have sniffed, “Who cares?” Certainly he showed almost no concern for the fate of either his choreography or for NYCB after his demise. “Apres moi, the board,” he said, characteristically.

The influence of these choreographers is so profound that it is difficult to conceive of the world without it. They offered, on the one hand, loving tribute to the past (as in Balanchine’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Robbins’ Fiddler on the Roof, or Fosse’s vaudeville-inspired number, “Who’s Got the Pain?” in Damn Yankees), while at the same time translating American culture into a performance milieu that all can access. In so doing, they transcended barriers of language, mores, ethnicity and expectation to offer a broadened vision of humanity, “the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”

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