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Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance

Opening of Chapter 3. From Broadway to Ballet

A young American dancer in the late 1930s couldn’t afford to specialize, or be too choosy about what kind of work he would or wouldn’t do. Getting into a ballet company was almost out of the question. For much of the decade, there weren’t any established companies. Between 1935 and 1938, the American Ballet Company, under George Balanchine’s direction, was uncomfortably ensconced as resident company of the Metropolitan Opera, where operas were many and all-ballet evenings exceedingly rare. Even before the relationship was dissolved, and the company as such vanished, Balanchine began siphoning off dancers to the Broadway shows and movies he’d begun to tackle with apparent ease, competence, and good manners unusual enough to cause comment. Others joined Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, a small, short-lived company (1936-39) that presented Americana ballets by Americans, such as Lew Christensen’s Filling Station and Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid. The two companies that toured regularly as of 1937--Colonel W. De Basil’s Ballet Russe and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo--were descended from Serge Diaghilev’s landmark Les Ballets Russes (1909-1929) and maintained a “Russian” profile in terms of both repertory and personnel. In his chronicle of ballet in the United States, George Amberg commented on the slowness of the “ ...natural process of American infiltration [into these companies] by way of the corps de ballet and minor positions... ”

Like Robbins’ appearance in Lisa Parnova’s concert, his first experiences on the ballet stage were short-term. He and his good friend from Daganova’s studio, Harry Day, managed to get taken on as extras for the Fokine Ballet’s performance of Mikhail Fokine’s sexy 1910 orientalist one-act Scheherazade at Jones Beach on July 4th, 1937. Fokine’s son Vitale staged the work. Day and Robbins played two faithful servants of the Shah, who return from the royal hunt to discover a forbidden orgy and rush off to break the news of the harem’s faithlessness to the trusting ruler and his cynical brother. Robbins, schooled by Sandor, found Patricia Bowman as Zobeide and Harold Hoskins in Nijinsky’s role of the Favorite Slave unconvincing as actors: “Everything was done on a huge, over-histrionic base. Their attention seemed more out front than to each other. It seemed eyes didn’t see & emotions appeared ‘showed’ rather than felt.” (One wonders if, in applying Group Theatre standards, he took into account the fact that the immense outdoor theater, seating ten thousand and stuffed to capacity, didn’t encourage subtlety.) At the critical moment when Zobeide demands to be allowed to kill herself rather than be slain like the hoi polloi of the harem by brawny guards with scimitars, she was supposed to seize a dagger from a handy servant. Robbins, pleased to be given this role, was shocked that Bowman, not immediately seeing the knife stuck in his belt, said, possibly in some irritation, “Where’s the dagger?” At Dance Center you never came out of character; a meaningful glance at his waist was the extent to which he would sacrifice his principles to help her out.

He and Day had more dancing to do in Alexander Yakovleff’s production of the “Polvetsian Dances” from Prince Igor on a special outdoor program to dedicate the 1939 World’s Fair. Robbins doesn’t seem to have had much respect for Yakovleff, whom he enjoyed calling “Yakeflopf,” but he was enthusiastic about being one of a band of Tartars “celebrating their wild & ferocious way of life with a stomping leaping almost bacchanalian fervor.” One of three soloists, he got to follow the leading dancer in a “whip-like turning entrance” brandishing a bow. There were perks too. Over and over, lines of warriors skipped victoriously toward the footlights- pirouetting, falling to one knee, and loosing a shower of imaginary arrows over the audience’s heads. The English folk dancers who preceded the ballet on the program had, in springing about, dislodged coins from their pockets. In between shooting his arrow and rushing back to shoot again, Robbins managed to stow away 45¢ to augment his $2 pay. Another useful side effect: he met Muriel Bentley, with whom he was to perform, on whom he was to set roles, and who was a frequent scapegoat for his temper fits for over twenty years.

Robbins had met Day at Daganova’s. He wrote “it was good to have a friend,” as if he hadn’t really had a close one in New York up to then. Both slender and on the small side (Robbins had still not reached his full height of 5’ 71/2”), the two swapped practice clothes for auditions and streets clothes for appointments. They spent weekends at each other’s family homes. They giggled together; colleagues called them the “Bobbsey Twins.” But when Robbins finally made it into a Broadway show, and Day didn’t, they drifted apart.