Jowitt, with her careful, caring research and seemingly total access--for although this was not an "authorized," and therefore possibly censored, biography, she did have complete access to Robbins' private papers and memorabilia--provided a handsomely written and marvelously readable account of the man and his achievements, which will surely provide a splendidly factual backdrop to a more detailed critical evaluation of those achievements in the future.
THE BOOK tells us what he did, but to my mind falls a little short in assessing the importance of it, both for its own time and for the future. She appears to accept that his work in the theater, specifically his pioneering endeavors with the Broadway musical, are of equal importance to his work in classical ballet, and indeed she seems to give more space and detail to this theater work than his work in dance. This is a judgment that I am sure history will reject. His essentially interpretive theater work will, in 50 years' time, provide little more than a warm footnote in theater histories, whereas at least a-half-dozen of his ballets will still be around to bear witness to his standing as one of the major creative artists of the 20th century.
It is curious how many American critics, including even his friend Edwin Denby, apparently underrate Robbins in almost direct proportion to their unstinting admiration for George Balanchine, Robbins' mentor. The obvious example here is the writer Arlene Croce, who seems to have had little time for Robbins or his contribution to the repertoire of New York City Ballet. Interestingly, some of these writers tend to overestimate his theater work in some patronizing attempt to denigrate his work in ballet, just as many like to suggest that his finest ballet was his first, Fancy Free. I fear that Jowitt's new book--simply by awarding equal time to Broadway as to the sterner climes of classical ballet--could add fuel to these flames.
In this very context I noticed, with horror, a letter that former City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley sent to the New York Times Book Review in gratuitous response to a review--a well-reasoned review by Nicholas Fox Weber, incidentally--of the Jowitt biography. She wrote, "Robbins was Salieri to Balanchine's Mozart, and we all knew it. On the Great White Way he was 'Mr. Robbins,' the King of Broadway, but in the elevators and studios backstage at the New York State Theater he was 'Jerry,' just 'Jerry.' Balanchine was the Man. And he was the Man to Jerry too."
ROBBINS' fervent and sincere admiration for Balanchine is well documented, as is the debt of influence the younger choreographer owed to his elder master. Balanchine, on the other hand, seemed to have little admiration for any other choreographer--although he did once admit to Buckle that Frederick Ashton taught him how to cook kippers. But to compare the relative stature of Balanchine and Robbins to that of Mozart and Salieri (ever since Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, virtually the poster-child contrast between genius and mediocrity) viciously mingles insult with ignorance. Robbins the 20th-century Salieri! What an outright absurdity. One could conceivably--were one playing stupid, trivial name games--make a slightly better, though still unsupportable, case in suggesting that Robbins was Mozart to Balanchine's Haydn. But enough of such nonsense.
Whether Robbins was "the Man" or not, it is generally admitted internationally that Robbins was one of the few great masters of 20th-century ballet. And to be honest, when the dust of history has settled, it would not surprise me that in decades to come choreographers such as Robbins and Ashton, artists of poetry and passion both, may find their stock slightly rising with the tides of taste, while Balanchine's may slightly fall. There is a simple Apollonian beauty to Balanchine at his best, which no choreographer--not Petipa, not Bournonville, no one--has ever matched. Yet has Balanchine ever created a work with the simple humanity of Robbins' Dances at a Gathering or Ashton's La Fille mal gardee? Only asking.
Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.