Your Ultimate Guide to Robbins: Ballet & Broadway

What is it? A celebration of Jerome Robbins’ 100th birthday.

Wait, who? Only one of the most important choreographers of the 20th century. Robbins choreographed groundbreaking ballets like The Cage and Dances at a Gathering that changed what American ballet could look like; directed and/or choreographed Tony-winning Broadway shows (and movies!) like On the Town, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof; and was the Associate Artistic Director of New York City Ballet with George Balanchine.  

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves Broadway, strong women, Chopin, or clever moments of wit.

OPUS 19/THE DREAMER

Maria Kochetkova and Taras Domitro in Robbins' Opus 19/The Dreamer // © Erik Tomasson


What am I seeing? This moody, psychological ballet to music by Sergei Prokofiev was originally choreographed for superstar dancer—and Sex in the City guest star—Mikhail Baryshnikov and star Balanchine ballerina Patricia McBride. Since its premiere in 1979, many dancers, including SF Ballet’s own Helgi Tomasson, have made the role their own, each bringing their own interpretations to this Dreamer and his quest. 

What am I hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto, op. 19. Written in 1917 at the height of the Russian Revolution, this music wasn’t performed until Prokofiev had left the USSR in 1923. Other famous Prokofiev ballets include Romeo & Juliet and Cinderella.

What should I look for? Keep an eye out for the way the corps de ballet moves in and through formations, always escaping or eluding the Dreamer, like objects do in dreams. And listen for the way the score varies between classical, romantic, and dissonant moods and see if you can see the choreography matching those effects.

THE CAGE

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Robbins' The Cage // © Erik Tomasson


What am I seeing? The Cage made a serious impact when it premiered in 1951, featuring Robbins’ ex-fiancé Nora Kaye as a man-eating cross between an Amazon and a praying mantis. (Don’t worry, this wasn’t a revenge piece: he was gay, she likely knew, and they remained close friends). In this ballet, we follow the Novice, an insect-human hybrid, as she falls, briefly, in love with a man who wanders into her all-female society and then kills him. Strong female characters or a misogynistic depiction of female sexuality? We’ll let you be the judge.

What am I hearing? Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra. Robbins discovered this piece because it was on the flip side of his recording of Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, music made famous by George Balanchine’s Apollo. Until The Cage, choreography to Stravinsky’s music had been almost the sole domain of Balanchine, who had already made Apollo, Orpheus, and Firebird.

What should I look for? The insect-like movements of the Novice: notice how when she first emerges from her chrysalis, she’s wobbly and uncertain, and then gains in strength and confidence. Also, when the curtain goes up, you’ll see a spider web of ropes lift up toward the ceiling. This design element emerged accidentally when the original lighting and set designer lowered a web of ropes from the fly space to check it after a stage rehearsal and Robbins realized the image was perfect for his ballet.

OTHER DANCES

What am I seeing? Also made on Mikhail Baryshnikov, but this time with Russian star Natalia Makarova, this 20-minute ballet was made to be performed at a benefit for the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. These two dancers were both Soviet defectors and the ballet, featuring only the two of them, blends Russian-style folk-steps and gestures with virtuosic ballet technique, showcasing their technique and imbuing the ballet with a sense of nostalgia or remembrance.

What am I hearing? Four of Frédéric Chopin’s mazurkas (op. 17, no. 4; op. 41, no. 3; op. 63, no. 2; and op. 33, no 2 for the music nerds out there!) and one waltz (op. 64, no. 3). Other Dances is the last of Robbins’ Chopin ballets—the others are The Concert, Dances at a Gathering, and In the Night. For many ballet fans, it doesn’t get better than Robbins + Chopin.

What should I look for? The folk dance-inspired gestures, the piano on-stage, and the way the dancers interact with one another. Also, in the final section, look for the moment when the man lifts the ballerina over his head horizontally and then lets her drop down into his arms—it’ll make you gasp.  

FANCY FREE

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Fancy Free // © Erik Tomasson


What am I seeing? Fancy Free is pure fun. Created in April 1944, this was Robbins’ first ballet and he not only choreographed it, but danced in it too! Telling the story of three sailors out on the town during a 24-hour shore leave, this ballet showed American life as it was in 1944 as WWII dragged on. This ballet was such a big hit that Broadway producers approached Robbins about turning it into a musical and, sure enough, On the Town was just as much of a success, making Robbins one of the most in-demand choreographers in ballet and on Broadway.

What am I hearing? Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free. Bernstein created this score especially for Robbins’ ballet and it kicked-off one of the most important collaborations of the 20th century. Together, Robbins and Bernstein would make Fancy Free, Facsimile, Age of Anxiety, The Dybbuk, and perhaps most famously, West Side Story. 2018 is also Bernstein’s 100th birthday, so cheers to both these men and their contributions—joint and separate—to American art!

What should I look for? Robbins made this piece on himself and his friends and their personalities all shine through, especially in the sailors' solos. The first sailor is a show-off, “bawdy and boisterous,” according to Robbins, jumping on and off the bar. The second is sweeter, quieter; his solo is a waltz with a hint of wistfulness. The third sailor’s solo, which Robbins made for himself, is to Latin-inspired music is known as the Rhumba solo and is full of intensity and New York spirit. Note how the music blends American vernacular music with more classical sounds, just as Robbins’ choreography melds the gestures and movements of a New York street with classical ballet vocabulary.

Listen to the Robbins: Ballet and Broadway Spotify Playlist

Chopin, Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein–can it get any better? Join SF Ballet for a celebration of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein in their centennial years.