Jerome Robbins dancing in his living room in 1959. (Philippe Halsman/ Halsman Archive/ New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
Jerome Robbins dancing in his living room in 1959. (Philippe Halsman/ Halsman Archive/ New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
'I never belonged because I was Jewish'

Before ‘Fiddler,’ iconic ‘West Side Story’ choreographer lived as a closeted Jew

An exhibition at the New York Public Library highlights the loneliness that plagued star Jerome Robbins, the eternal outsider, bisexual son of Jewish immigrants

NEW YORK — Pivoting with a basketball across the asphalt, members of two fabled street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, whirl around each other in concrete combat. Their battlefield, a single city block.

This footage from the classic “West Side Story” reflects the skill of the man who choreographed it, the legendary Jerome Robbins. It’s part of a new Robbins exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, “Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York,” on display through March 2019.

Taking place in the centennial of Robbins’s birth, the exhibit reflects his acclaimed work as a choreographer over a career in which he won five Tony Awards and two Academy Awards.

But it also addresses his multidimensionality through objects including sketches, diaries, photos, writings and videos. And it examines Robbins’s lifelong struggle with his Jewish identity, from changing his birth name of Rabinowitz, to his collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, to his exploration of Jewish themes later in his career, such as “Fiddler on the Roof.” As well, it’s a love song to New York, his mentor and muse throughout it all.

Manhattan’s Upper West Side was a spectrum of activity on a recent Saturday. Weary runners who had crossed the finish line of the TCS NYC Marathon walked down Central Park West for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. A few blocks away, the Hungarian State Opera prepared for a performance at Lincoln Center that evening.

The nearby New York Public Library for the Performing Arts offered a warm respite from a windy afternoon, and a window into Robbins’s life through footage of the dancers he taught to express themselves.

Guest curator Julia Foulkes brought expertise on Robbins from her 2016 book “A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York.” She sought to approach the exhibition in a way that went beyond the traditional narrative of Robbins’s fame and connected him with something larger — his hometown.

Jerome Robbins dancing in his living room in 1959. (Philippe Halsman/ Halsman Archive/ New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

“New York captured him in all sorts of ways,” she explained. “He wrote about it, sketched, painted, photographed, shot movie footage, and of course [there are the] dances about it.”

All this represented “a range of creativity” beyond his choreographic talents, Foulkes said. And she looked to present these multifaceted talents in a visually oriented way, with items ranging from video footage to still photography. Some have never been seen by the public before, including footage Robbins himself shot around New York and a set of 24 journals he kept from 1971 to 1984.

Of the latter, Foulkes said, “They feel like a very rare sighting. They don’t necessarily depict something specific about the city, but a person on a constant quest to understand the world around him.”

That quest began on October 11, 1918, in the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Manhattan, when baby Jerome Rabinowitz was born to Jewish immigrant parents Harry and Lena (Rips) Rabinowitz. A Weehawken, New Jersey rooftop photograph of them is shown in the exhibition.

“He had a tortured relationship with his family but [here] he embraced his family,” Foulkes said. “They were happy, smiling. He had his life before him in the city across the river.”

Harry Rabinowitz ran a kosher deli with a menu that visitors can see in the exhibit. Later, he went into the corset business. But his son took a different path.

“He was pushed by his mother into a way in which her children might be different from her generation,” Foulkes said. “He might gain, from artistic expression, a possible new existence in the United States. You see him take full advantage.”

Ballets: U.S.A. in N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, 1958. (Photo by Jerome Robbins/
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

The Great Depression seemed like an unpropitious moment to embark upon an artistic career. Yet Foulkes said there were advantages, including art programs supported by the federal government as part of the New Deal, allowing artists to start thinking about creating an American form of theater.

“There was a moment in the late 1930s when he came into the world with such purpose,” Foulkes said. “A world crisis was occurring. Art was given such meaning.” And, she said, Robbins realized that “what I do matters, I can really contribute something to an American vision of dance.”

During that time, he had been working in show business, following the lead of his sister, Sonia, a professional dancer. Learning dance and ballet, he performed in “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” produced by the Yiddish Art Theatre in 1937. Just a few years later, in 1940, he was singing in the chorus in the Broadway production “Keep Off the Grass,” choreographed by a notable future colleague, George Balanchine.

Foulkes said that for Robbins, everything converged in the late 1930s and 1940s.

“Art had a new meaning,” she said. “He was at the forefront of an art form, a different way of expression, a change. At age 25, he was at the forefront.”

Adam Hendrickson, Georgina Pazcoguin, and members of New York City Ballet in ‘N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz.’ (Photo by Costas Cacaroukas/Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

From the 1940s to the 1970s, Robbins remained part of that forefront through works that continue to delight and challenge audiences.

“I think his best works received critical favor and can sort of be reimagined,” Foulkes said.

The first such work she listed was the 1944 ballet “Fancy Free,” in which a trio of sailors dance through New York on shore leave. According to an article on the New York Public Library website, “[to] write the score he sought out the services of a young unknown composer named Leonard Bernstein.”

Foulkes said that Robbins and Bernstein have been “paired as part of a generation of gay or bisexual Jewish men who found their place in US society in the arts, the forefront of the arts. Bernstein and Robbins were the leading American voices in music and dance from the 1940s to the 1970s. It was a new place for people coming from their backgrounds.”

Bernstein, also born in 1918, has been the recipient of his own centennial celebrations this year.

Between him and Robbins, “I do think Bernstein is far more well-known,” Foulkes said. “He was far more famous [than Robbins] then, and even more now.”

Yet, she said, “they had enormous respect for one another.” She noted “how much each pushed the other,” including on “Fancy Free,” with Robbins critiquing Bernstein’s music and Bernstein doing the same with Robbins’s dances.

Dance became a larger part of Robbins’s life when he joined the New York City Ballet as associate artistic director in 1949, working with Balanchine. Then, in the next decade, Robbins and Bernstein teamed up again. Their focus now was not World War II but a different kind of war, one between New York street gangs, with the city being demolished and rebuilt around them.

In a two-page story scenario in the exhibit, Robbins originally envisioned rival Jewish and Catholic gangs battling in the Lower East Side. The modern-day retelling of Romeo and Juliet featured a Jewish Juliet and a Passover seder. The script switched settings across town, and the street gangs became white (the Jets) and Puerto Rican (the Sharks) — the production audiences know as “West Side Story.”

Jerome Robbins directing dancers during rehearsal for the stage production of ‘West Side Story’ in 1957. (Photo by Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

“Really, it becomes a question about belonging, about place, who gets to claim who they are,” Foulkes reflected.

Robbins won a Tony Award for Best Choreography on the 1957 production. One character in particular captivated his attention: Puerto Rican gang leader Bernardo.

“He identified, in some way, with Bernardo,” Foulkes said. “Someone angry, who doesn’t feel he was given [anything], deserves a place, deserves to belong, faces a sort of injustice, discrimination.”

These themes affected Robbins’ own life as a Jew.

“He found it so hard to understand and grapple with what tradition and heritage meant to him,” Foukes said. “In and out, throughout his lifetime, there was an investigation of that.

“Early on, he was trying to assimilate into a more gentile vision of the US, in terms of changing his name, in terms of the arts rather than his parents’ business,” she said.

It took a 1953 investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to reveal the impact of anti-Semitism and cause him to consider “what it meant to be Jewish,” she said.

One of Robbins’s journals contains a reference to the book “Naming Names” by Victor Navasky, in which the author claims that Robbins might have testified before HUAC to stay in the closet. (He told the committee that he was a Communist Party member in the 1930s and identified eight other former members.)

Foulkes said that Robbins revealed that while he panicked about being identified as gay, being a Jew was what he was most panicked about.

New York City Ballet in ‘Glass Pieces.’ (Photo by Costas Cacaroukas/ Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

As his success and stature increased, he began to explore the subject of Jewish identity, including with “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964, which won him Tony honors for Best Direction of a Musical, as well as Best Choreography.

“By the 1970s, Jewish heritage had this incredibly weighty feeling,” Foulkes said. “He had to kind of examine it.”

This took a more personal nature after his father’s death as Robbins researched a work entitled “The Poppa Piece.” An audio file of his research features him saying, “I never belonged because I was Jewish.”

“He was always aware that he was apart from the American lifestyle, the American idea,” Foulkes said, adding that he felt that “in some way [he] was always standing outside.”

She noted that Robbins also suffered from a lack of a long-lasting love, male or female.

“He did not seem to be content in a relationship, and was clearly tortured by that,” she said. And despite his professional success, he often lived with “uncertainty or doubt of some kind” over what he had accomplished, she said.

Now 100 years after Robbins’s birth, his memory lives on through the exhibit, and its impact on the next generation of Broadway-goers.

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