Essays

Twelve Letters to Jerome Robbins, an Inspirational New York Choreographer

A series of letters addressed to the deceased choreographer, who is having an exhibition at the New York Public Library.

(image courtesy Jonathan Blanc/the New York Public Library)

Dear Mr. Robbins,

You don’t know me, but I’m here at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for your exhibition, Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York.

The first thing I see, the introduction to the exhibit, is a giant image of you, circa 1930s, dancing on a rooftop. Long before West Side Story, long before Fiddler on the Roof, long even before Fancy Free, the first ballet you choreographed. You are on relevé, right arm reaching up to the sky, left arm reaching out, left leg as high as it wants to be.

I call it the Proud Step, and I know this step because I’ve done it hundreds of times in my dance class at the 92 St Y.

If it is possible to see oneself in others, where do you look first? Why not in the palm of an opening hand, an arm that reaches out?

Sincerely,

Pune

Jerome Robbins dancing in his living room (1959) (photo by Philippe Halsman © Halsman Archive, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Dear Mr. Robbins,

Just to be up-front, I didn’t come only for you. I came in search of my dance teacher, Sal, who died in September and who danced in the touring company of West Side Story. He was Baby John, and although he was not alone in his assessment of you (I can’t remember the exact words he used — a prick?), he passed on your steps to us and he moved through life, moved through streets, exactly as you wanted dancers to:

Hal Prince on your choreography in your New York Times obituary, July 30, 1998: “Whenever possible, he wanted it to seem like improvised natural human behavior.”

And from the Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1998: “It was real people onstage looking at each other and walking normally.”

Sal wore Levi’s, T-shirts, and baby blue bandannas with skulls. He cinched his belt like they do in the prologue, because there’s a rumble every day, on Avenue C, on 92nd St. And you didn’t look at him and think oh that’s a dancer, but you looked at him. You couldn’t stop. Even when he just walked down the street, it was still so much better than other people walking, as if he might jazz run, chassé, and jazz run again at any moment. Forever Jet from West Side Story.

These days, most dancers look like they want to look like dancers. These days we are all so hyperanxious about our identities, our brands. Sal told his students he wasn’t insecure, so he didn’t need to act like that. The way he said it, I got the feeling a teacher, or someone, had said the same thing to him many times before. I wonder if that is one of your words. Insecure.

Pune

“A ballet in sneakers,” Ballets: US. in NY Export: Opus Jazz (1958) (photo by Jerome Robbins, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Dear Mr. Robbins,

How would you like to be remembered?

I ask because you show up in so many ways in this exhibit; there are so many ways for us to see you:

  • A Voice-o-Graph booth recording with your friend Nancy Walker, who starred in On the Town (we are told to listen for you giggling before falling into song)
  • Your paintings of the views out your window when you lived on 31st and 6th Avenue, and then on East 81st
  • Costumes from the stage version of West Side Story — Jet (male) and Shark (female)
  • A photo taken by Robert A. Freson of your 1958 ballet Y. Export: Opus Jazz — your “ballet in sneakers,” people call it — the dancers fuzzed-out in stop motion, suspended against a backdrop of paperclips strung like an Alexander Calder
  • A big screen looping the opening scene of the 1961 film version of West Side Story
  • Your childhood drawings and poems: “Sometimes I dream of funny things/Sometimes I dream I’m dead” 

Maybe a better way to ask this is: How do you describe yourself? Does choreographer come first? Or would you resist definition?

To me you are a collaborator, collaborating with a view from the rooftops.

(copyright Robert A. Freson, 1958, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Mr. Robbins,

Transposed over the photo taken on the roof is a poem you wrote about New York, all tension and contrasts. Like New York, it registers in fragments: “My city is tall and jagged — with gold and slated towers. My city is cut + recut + slashed by hard car filled streets. …. sparkles with its false lights and sleeps restlessly at night.”

If it is possible to see oneself in others, why not in the way words stand next to one another and begin to move forward?

(image courtesy Jonathan Blanc/the New York Public Library)

Dear Mr. Robbins,

Technically, these days I shouldn’t even be telling your story. I don’t identify as gay, I don’t identify as a man, I’m not Jewish, and I’m not a professional choreographer or dancer or dance historian. But when I do your steps, my palms facing out, my city and me, we are a ballet in sneakers.

You, too, told a story that some would say wasn’t yours to tell. The story of the sons and daughters of Polish immigrants, of Puerto Rican immigrants.

We all dance.

(image courtesy Jonathan Blanc/the New York Public Library)

Dear Mr. Robbins,

One of the best parts of this exhibit are your diaries — collages you made featuring your own illustrations, ticket stubs, photos, snippets from newspapers, postmarks from letters, and the letters themselves. They look well-spiced and vigorous.

The curator, Julia Foulkes, explains that you wrote them as if someone were going to read them. You included directions to turn the page, drew arrows indicating where the reader’s eyes should go next.

I want to know: Did you cut and paste these collages together as if the pieces were dancers or as if they were choreography? Isn’t a blank page a stage?

When Sal let me put steps together for the children’s classes, my combinations often felt better to do than to watch. It’s frustrating being an amateur and knowing it. Sal could choreograph like he was in two places at once, stage left and house right. Seeing and thinking as the dancer, seeing and thinking as the viewer.

The students in his classes at the Y loved him because he let them perform “Thriller,” and he knew these private-schooled, overly scheduled Upper East Side girls had not had many chances to be monsters. “It’s good for you,” he’d tell them. Toward the number’s end, he asked them to look down at the floor and be “real cool” with their hip isolations. As the music built, he simply told them, “LOOK UP AT THE AUDIENCE!”

That one count made the whole number. Less is more in a city of slash and bling and Rolexed gore.

Screw tutus. Why not a ballet in fake blood and black teeth?

Pune

(image courtesy Jonathan Blanc/the New York Public Library)

Dear Mr. Robbins,

When Sal taught the Proud Step, he didn’t say it with caps. But he did tell us our right arm must be glued to our ear, leg height was unimportant — “That don’t mean a thing! It’s about what’s inside of you!” — and chests out. “I’m feeling proud when I do this,” he’d say. “It’s a proud step.”

So, in photos I see of you doing and teaching this step, I notice the right arm is not always glued to the ear. I wonder if Sal changed it, or if you changed it, or if he was just saying that so we tried to make it happen. Intent is often so much stronger than perfect execution.

Wondering,

Pune

 

 

Dear Mr. Robbins,

You may not know that one thing that gives amateurs away (aside from the lack of technical skill and enchanted horse-like presence that every fancy dancer has) is the way we make excuses. The soles sticking to the floor, the height of the heel, the wooden floor too slippery — all reasons why we didn’t remember the step or fell out of the turn. Sal would tell us to be a professional is to dance in any kind of footwear, on any surface.

Dancing on rooftops is one way to cure oneself of the fear of falling.

-p.

(image courtesy Jonathan Blanc/the New York Public Library)

Dear Mr. Robbins,

Sal passed away unexpectedly, quickly — like a button at the end of a very fast song. One where the performers are dancing their asses off and no one never knew because they make it look as easy as breathing.

Just two days earlier he was showing us the Proud Step.

You had a stroke one July and died in your home as the month ended. I cannot say what the cadence was, whether time had slowed down enough for you to fill the seconds, the “and” counts, with the never-before-seen shapes that bodies make.

 

 

Dear Mr. Robbins,

Is the Proud Step your very own? I ask for two reasons:

  • I think a lot about the first pirouette. How did someone know that if you stand on the toes of one leg while bending the other — and oh, I know, it’s very technical — but holding the arms just so, fingers spread, and looking forward, holding your head there until you can’t look anymore, while your body starts turning, that you will defy gravity and spin on an earth that’s also spinning? I can barely do three, unlike Sal, who was a flower doing trigonometry when he did them. There was also something of a cement mixer breaking the speed limit about him, a description I think you can relate to. In your 1989 Los Angeles Times obituary, one of the dancers in “Fancy Free” recounts that “once, on tour, looking out a train window, we saw planes flying in a shifting, triangular formation, and Jerry choreographed that into the opening sailors’ dance.”
  • I think a lot about the shapes that bodies make, positions we fall back on and into naturally when the mind doesn’t interfere. The way some people lean forward when they walk, Road Runnering somewhere fast, the way others lead with their pelvises. Why wouldn’t the human body manifest tropisms, hopes? What says the soul of a body that defaults into Proud Step?

(Still, I’m going to do the Proud Step the way Sal taught me, with my right arm glued to my ear. Or else.)

Jerome Robbins directing dancers during rehearsal for the stage production of West Side Story (1957), silver gelatin print (photo by Martha Swope, Billy Rose Theatre Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Dear Mr. Robbins,

The legend goes you were in rehearsal with your dancers, walking backwards, dangerously close to the edge of the stage — and no one stopped you from tumbling into the orchestra pit, perhaps a kinesthetic justice on behalf of all the dancers you’d bullied and belittled.  “Off he went,” a dancer told one of your biographers, the dancer Greg Lawrence. “He could have killed himself. I think he fell into the bass drums.”

The exhibit doesn’t address how you could be an asshole and a collaborator and a genius all at once, but does it have to? I like to just watch the clip of you rehearsing a sequence from “Other Dances” (1976) with Mikhail Baryshnikov. I hope with every view some iteration of you gets to feel that sweet, light, and right, even now.

 

Dear Mr. Robbins,

I don’t know how bodies rearrange themselves and move through space after they have passed. I would guess that persons of extraordinary physical intelligence delight in learning a new way to move.

Sal was sighted in late November, walking down and up the stairs on the 7 Train pre-dawn, and more recently on a busy-cold January afternoon, near a school where he used to teach on West 88th Street. “I would have said hello if I hadn’t known he was dead,” reported the sighter. He is that good.

I like to think you’re still orchestrating bigger, louder ballets for your city, hiding in the back of the house, under the exit sign on opening night. I imagine that’s you asking the pigeons to divebomb skateboarders on the corner of 14th and 6th Avenue, moving them downstage to 5th in start-and-stoplight syncopate, moving with dancers I can almost see doing airplane turns at the cross streets.

Sal Pernice, third from left (collection of the author for Hyperallergic)

Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York, curated by Julia Foulkes, continues at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center (40 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through March 30. 

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