Jerome Robbins: the man behind West Side Story

Rehearsing on the set of the film of West Side Story

For many, West Side Story is the greatest musical of all time.  Opening on Broadway in 1957, the entire production was conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.  It won two Tony awards, including Best Choreography for Robbins.  While the film of the stage show went on to win ten Oscars, including joint Best Director for Robert Wise and first time director Jerome Robbins.  Robbins was also given a special Oscar ‘For his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.’   Through West Side Story people saw what a huge talent Robbins was, yet they may not have known that Robbins was also rooted in classical ballet as much as the musical theatre: for many, he is considered the greatest American-born classical choreographer.

Born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in New York in 1918, he started his dance training at high school and found that modern dance gave him freedom to express himself. Later he also took ballet classes and to this he added Spanish dancing and Asian dance. 

After two years on Broadway he joined the company that became American Ballet Theatre in 1940.  Here, he created roles for such famous choreographers as Fokine, Lichine and Tudor.  Then in 1944 he choreographed his first major work for the company, Fancy Free, about three sailors on shore leave in New York.  It was an instant hit and the start of his collaboration with the young composer, Leonard Bernstein.  The ballet was successfully adapted into the musical On the Town again showing how Robbins could a have a foot in both ballet and the musical theatre.

For the rest of his career he spanned both worlds working on some of the most famous musicals, including, The King And I, The Pajama Game, Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof.  In 1949 Robbins joined New York City Ballet as associate director, forming a highly productive relationship with George Balanchine and his company.  Here he created such early masterpieces as the ballets Afternoon of the Faun and The Concert. At this stage he was still dancing and is remembered for impressive performances in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and Tyl Ulenspiegel. Later works for the NYCB include Dancers at a Gathering, Requiem Canticles, Dumbarton Oaks and In the Night,

This course will explore the career and works of this fascinating, multi-talented and hugely complex man, notorious for driving his dancers hard to achieve perfection.

Presentation: this presentation is illustrated by PowerPoint slides, along with archive film clips and DVDs shown to illustrate the topic.

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