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Robbins speaks!

NEW YORK CITY -- The seventy-eight-year-old Robbins, who has had heart problems and was looking slightly fragile, revealed that he is working on a new piece to the music of J.S. Bach. This follows on other Bach works performed by his longtime home company, the New York City Ballet, including the recent Brandenburg and 2 and 3 Part Inventions and the 1971 Goldberg Variations. The baroque composer is clearly a force keeping Robbins inspired. He said that, whereas "some ballets will be very modern dance," to him Bach calls for classical ballet -- "and yet it's that tension that I feel about being held by that all the time that makes me push against it.... That's one reason why I like it. It's something you want to dance... I find the richness [of Bach] very, very exciting, thrilling, and disturbing in a way... It doesn't seem like something by an old man. . . . He's taking strange journeys while searching out all the things he wants to find out."

Robbins has made several starts on his memoirs but commented ruefully, "I don't know. It isn't easy. There's an awful lot of those books around."

Covering selected points in his long career, the undisputed dean of living American ballet choreographers touched on rehearsals in which he created his 1944 hit first ballet Fancy Free: He solved the problem of the accompanist's chronic loud playing of Leonard Bernstein's score by lining up empty bottles at the beginning of rehearsal sessions and throwing them at the piano.

Always a great admirer of the late George Balanchine, Robbins reminisced about joining NYCB in order to learn how the older man worked. He demonstrated the way Balanchine would stand calmly in rehearsal with his hands folded, looking down, before producing a long passage of choreography. For Robbins (whose artistic births tend to be more difficult), it took years, he said, to learn that there are "many ways of working."

Of Balanchine he also said, "We got along very, very well always, except for one terrible argument." When an audience member asked him what that was about, he shook a finger scoldingly and said he would never discuss it.

He told with relish of NYCB cofounders Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein watching a rehearsal of his not-then-completed The Cage, his portrayal of predatory female insects; he drew laughter from the Y audience when he recalled Kirstein saying, "Now, don't put a `nice' ending on it."

When Jowitt asked what Robbins likes about fine dancers, he reached outside NYCB to quote Natalia Makarova: "She said, `People have to be passionate.' She was very passionate." He recalled being "knocked flat" by Makarova and Baryshnikov in the Swan Lake Act II pas de deux. in working with dancers generally, he said, "You have to hook their imagination." He spoke of pushing an NYCB dancer to dig in himself "all the way down to the bottom" and being pleased with the results; others, he said, you don't have to say a word to, "not a word." Later he named former NYCB ballerinas Suzanne Farrell, Allegra Kent, and Patricia McBride as being particularly memorable to work with. saying they "were terrific dancers and still are." In setting the 1995 West Side Story Suite, derived from his hit musical about rival New York gangs, Robbins said it was not difficult to get the quality he wanted from NYCB's classically trained troupe, although as a group, "they were holding back, and I had to say, `Look, each of you has your own story. You can't be just nice people and then scream and yell.'"

Researching the original 1957, West Side Story, Robbins became acquainted with gang members. He got along well with them, he said, and arranged for them to come to a performance of the musical. He recounted with feeling that at intermission, he had to dissuade them from getting back on the bus to leave; to them, the rumble that left two dead bodies onstage at the Act I curtain seemed like a natural conclusion to the story.

Robbins described his artistic process as he had described Bach's: a journey of discovery: "As I go along, I seem to start to get a sense of what [a piece] is about. Sometimes I'm very surprised by where I begin and end up. That's why I can't understand how people can say, `Oh, I do the ending first.' I can't do that. I have to get to it by the logic of what the choreography leads to."

Editor's note: If Jerome Robbins is acknowledged as America's greatest living choreographer, he is also known as one of its most shy. He rarely gives interviews. So when the New York City Ballet cofounding choreographer was interviewed by Dance Magazine contributing editor Deborah Jowitt before an audience at the 92nd Street Y last spring, we asked senior editor Marilyn Hunt to file a report. Robbins talked about his latest work, his early work, George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, what moves him in dancers, Bach, West Side Story, and other subjects.
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Title Annotation:choreographer Jerome Robbins
Author:Hunt, Marilyn
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Words:839
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