It’s hard to know where to start with Jerome Robbins, whose centennial is the subject of widespread celebration this year. Robbins was so multi-talented, at times it seemed even he didn’t know who he was or what he wanted to do. He was a friend and colleague of Leonard Bernstein (whose centennial is also being celebrated) and George Balanchine, yet in some ways he outshone them both. He choreographed for New York City Ballet; he choreographed for Broadway. Arguably the greatest American musical director as well the greatest American-born choreographer, he won five Tonys and two Oscars. And he was a pretty good dancer, to boot. Stephen Sondheim called Robbins “the only genius I ever met.” This August and early September, he’ll be commemorated with programs at Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and Boston Ballet.
“Genius” is hardly an overstatement. What distinguished Robbins was his phenomenal range; he could go anywhere, do anything. He choreographed some of the greatest musicals of the 20th century. In “West Side Story” alone, he’s finger-snappingly kinetic, from the opening Jets-Sharks confrontation to the gym face-off and the Shark ladies’ hip-swiveling “America.” Balanchine once did a ballet for 50 elephants, but I don’t know that he could have done “West Side Story.” And Robbins directed several of those iconic productions, too, from “West Side Story” to “Fiddler on the Roof.”
That was just the Broadway Robbins. The ballet Robbins made his choreographic debut in 1944 with the legendary “Fancy Free,” a lighthearted look at three sailors on shore leave in Manhattan and the ladies they meet and try to impress. Bernstein wrote the music, Robbins choreographed and danced. Robbins went on to make dances for New York City Ballet even as he was choreographing for Broadway. “The Cage” is a violent look at mating, the company’s women represented as predatory insects. “Afternoon of a Faun,” an update on the 1912 Nijinsky original, could hardly be more different: It’s a languid meditation on narcissism. And then there’s “The Concert,” a zany spoof set to Chopin that includes the immortal “Mistake Waltz.”
He was born in Manhattan, New York City, on October 11, 1918, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His parents wanted him to work for their Comfort Corset Company. His preferred to dance; in the 1930s he performed in Broadway shows choreographed by Balanchine. In 1940 he joined Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre), where he was good enough to get the title role in Fokine’s “Petrouchka.”
In 1949 Robbins became associate artistic director at New York City Ballet. He drifted away from the company after his muse there, Tanaquil Le Clercq, contracted polio in 1956, but he returned as ballet master in 1972 and enjoyed a second phase of ballet choreography. Chopin was a particular inspiration: Set mostly to the composer’s waltzes, mazurkas, and nocturnes, “Dances at a Gathering,” “In the Night,” and “Other Dances” make courtly seem contemporary.
Here in Boston, we’ve been fortunate to have Boston Ballet doing Robbins over the past few years, and doing it well. Every Robbins work calls for something a little different. The company’s “Antique Epigraphs” was women’s-mystery enigmatic, “Afternoon of a Faun” appropriately self-absorbed. “Fancy Free” was both jaunty and war-weary, and everyone was outrageously uninhibited in “The Concert.” At Tanglewood, on Aug. 18, Boston Ballet will join Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a fully staged presentation of “Fancy Free,” part of an all-Bernstein program.
Jacob’s Pillow will be recognizing Robbins Aug. 22-26 with a program by Stars of American Ballet, an ensemble led by NYCB principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht and including company principals Sterling Hyltin, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Ask la Cour, and Teresa Reichlen. The bill will comprise five short Robbins works, four of them from his later period. “Andantino” is a pas de deux set to the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1; “Concertino” is set to two brief early Stravinsky works. “A Suite of Dances,” to extracts from Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, is a pas de deux for solo dancer and onstage cellist. “Chopin Dances” is a rarely staged piece that Robbins constructed for two men out of solos from “Dances at a Gathering” and “Other Dances.” And the early (1945) “Interplay,” to Morton Gould’s piano concerto “American Concertette,” is a bluesy, jazzy romp for four men and four pony-tailed women.
Finally, Boston Ballet will open its 2018-19 season early (Sept. 6-16) with the Robbins program “Genius at Play.” The bill will reprise “Fancy Free”; it will also include “Interplay” (which the company did in 2001), giving audiences a chance to compare Boston Ballet’s performance with Stars of American Ballet’s at the Pillow. The closer is a new work for the company, “Glass Pieces,” which Robbins created in 1983 to selections from Philip Glass’s “Glassworks” and “Akhnaten” as a tribute to the restless energy of his hometown — and perhaps to his own restless energy.
Boston Ballet and Boston Symphony Orchestra. At Tanglewood, Lenox, Aug. 18. 617-266-1200, www.bso.org
Stars of American Ballet
At Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Aug. 22-26. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
At Boston Opera House, Sept. 6-16. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org