Leaping Jerome Robbins


His birthday is over so it is back to business.

To admire the work of Jerome Robbins (he is currently being deified, similar to Balanchine) is to stumble upon his borrowings, and lack of crediting of others. This is so sensitive — and it’s a difficult-to-discern thin line of how the artistic process happens. Again and again, I see Robbins cross that line, insofar as he seems more than ‘influenced,’ but actually ‘taking from.’ It’s so pervasive that I find myself compelled to create a tag ‘Jerry Robbins borrowings.’

I am far from a Robbins expert, but I am deeply curious how Robbins morphed into the choreographer of West Side Story. I just don’t see how he did it. Has this been analyzed? 

At top: Jack Cole dancer Buzz Miller in the ballet ‘La Chambre,’ choreography by Roland Petit. The year was 1955; at the time or certainly in the years leading up to ’55, Miller was lovers with Jerome Robbins. A lot of Robbins’ adoption (pilfering?) of Cole’s pioneering dance vocabulary came via Miller.

At side, an iconic photo of Cole choreography, in a tremendous shot by the great LIFE Magazine  photographer Gjon Mili from 1947. This is Jack Cole’s nightclub act, and that is Cole, in the black suit, at center. Note the men are holding hands! That is how incredible, precise and muscular was the Cole training.

Leaps are not uncommon in dance. They are ubiquitous. But Cole’s shapely pauses in the air, that he clearly passed to Buzz Miller, were pioneering.

Let’s be clear: Cole got that vibe from acrobatic black dancers like the Nicholas Brothers. An absolute import, legs tucked under, with a difference; unlike Harold and Fayard, Cole’s arms are overhead, and his back is involved; it is in an arch. That is even more difficult to pull off. The involvement of the back reflects Cole’s whole-body orientation, as a former modern dancer.

Zoom ahead to circa 1958, see photo at bottom, as Robbins rehearses “Cool” for the stage version of West Side Story. That’s Robbins at center, and George Chakiris to his left — good god, with perfect placement George is out-jumping everyone in the shot. (Tony Mordente at the far end. This photo more than demonstrates the burning dance talent Chakiris had circa 1958.)

Robbins introduces a new, cool, version, because the arms and hands are down, snapping fingers.

Whether stolen, borrowed, influenced, or whatever, it is fun to trace the development of this rarefied dance vocabulary from the Nicholases to Jack Cole to Buzz Miller to Jerome Robbins.

leave a comment



Happy birthday, Jerry! Love, WSS kids

Dance · Featured · Film

When was the last time a film clip got a standing ovation? Well, it happened last night. The audience at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills erupted after watching Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, on screen, kicking it to Leonard Bernstein’s thumping music and Stephen Sondheim’s wicked lyrics (all still ring dismally true) in “America.”

And there they were, Anita and Bernardo, in person.

Was there a choreographer on that sequence? You bet there was. And the Paley Center threw Jerome Robbins a big chat-and-clips party for his centenary birthday October 11. In attendance, a roster of ‘still kicking’ West Side Story A-team veterans.

The frothy, upfront discussion, regularly punctuated by fillips by the irrepressible Ms. Moreno, featured Eliot Feld (Baby John), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Rita Moreno (Anita), and George Chakiris (Bernardo). It was moderated by director Rob Marshall — himself a veteran WSS gypsy-dance trouper who went on the record stating that “Cool” was the bomb and he would never miss dancing it, even with a cobbled knee. 

It was thrilling for Los Angeles to see Mr. Feld, who went on from his supporting role in ‘West Side’ to hone in on ballet work, and become one of the most important American ballet choreographers of the twentieth century. Feld noted that none of the intensity and sweat of “Cool” in the movie was staged; it was all real. He mentioned that the filming of that sequence was delayed while he suffered a stint in the hospital. Bronchitas.

Tamblyn, a marvelous raconteur, chimed in with dry wit about not really having been a trained dancer (he famously had acrobatic/tumbling skills), but explained that his exposure to Michael Kidd working on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with the likes of cast members Marc Platt, Matt Mattox, Tommy Rall, and Jacques d’Amboise raised his game. He told a funny story that the scene in “Seven Brides” in which Jane Powell teaches the brothers to dance, he and Jeff Richards were the only ones credible as beginning dancers.

It was the first time I heard Rita Moreno own that she, too, was not a highly trained dancer at the time of her casting as Anita, but that she quickly burrowed down and signed up for every dance class in town.

Mr. Chakiris added his admiration for Tucker Smith’s performance in “Cool,” and also recognized Richard Beymer’s challenges playing in “Tony” under the direction of Robert Wise, whom Moreno noted, “was not an actor’s director.” Chakiris noted that the film opened a door to a career on a much higher level than his prior decade of being a chorus dancer in movie musicals. Chakiris staunchly defended Mr. Robbins, stating that in working closely with Jerry, he experienced nary a hiccup. He remembered Robbins, in fact, as being a quiet man, a description with which Marshall concurred.

Others had hiccups! Rita Moreno was a movie-musical newbie, an ingenue, when she worked for Robbins on “The King and I.” She described one of The Jer’s crueler, random attacks on a local chorus dancer. “Hey you,” Robbins pointed to a woman in the back row. “Are you wearing a girdle?” This could swing a few ways, but Moreno explained later that Robbins did not mean she needed one, rather that she was dancing like she was wearing one. Feld defended the master, saying, “I working with a lot of boring choreographers. With Jerry you were never bored.”

The panel was produced by Deborah M. Kaufman of the San Franciso-based “Words On Dance.” A beautiful evening. A love fest for West Side Story and its 100 year-old choreographer.

leave a comment



On Robbins’s 100th, his biographers raise a glass

Dance · Featured · Language & ideas
I’ll leave the kudos for Jerome Robbins on this auspicious day — his 100th birthday — to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts now hosting an exhibit, Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York; New York City Ballet with its planned Robbins repertory evening tonight (Afternoon of a Faun, Other ...



You ‘Bette’r believe it! Ms. Davis @ Larry Edmunds Bookshop

Featured · Film
We received this missive this morning from Jeff Mantor, who runs the Hollywood history hot spot at 6644 Hollywood Boulevard, aka Larry Edmunds Bookshop. Writes Jeff: On February 15, 1988 the legend, the one & only Bette Davis did a book signing at B. Dalton on Hollywood Blvd. For you book historians, this site was ...

House of Laemmle presents ‘House of Wax’ in 65th anniv screening 2

Featured · Film
In the photo, Mitch McConnell (Vincent Price) crates up Dr. Blaisey-Ford’s brain and sends it, and her, packing, back to Palo Alto. Her frozen, stunned expression captures her shock that truth-seeking holds little water for half of the population. For many, we’re living a national horror show — in a new America. To better adjust, ...

Memories of Paul Taylor … and ‘Aureole’ 2

Ed. note: Guest blogger Sharon Kinney contributes this reminiscence to mark the passing away of Paul Taylor on August 29, 2018 and to honor a great American dancer/choreographer. Writes Sharon: It was the summer of 1962, Paul Taylor invited me to come audition for a new piece he was making to be performed at Connecticut ...

Pick: Diavolo at the Music Center

Architecture & Design · Dance
There’s a dizzying amount of dance going on the next few weekends, as it is the height of the fall season. But if you really want to travel to dizzying heights, consider the upcoming offering of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, Diavolo | Architecture in Motion at the Ahmanson Theatre. Diavolo Artistic ...

John Scofield jazz combo at cozy Theater Raymond Kabbaz

John Scofield, the creative, distinctive and versatile guitarist and composer first burst on the scene playing with greats like Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Billy Cobham in the late ’70s . Possessed of a distinctive sound and stylistic diversity, Scofield is a masterful improviser whose music falls between post-bop, funk edged Jazz, and ...

Wham-bam Chris Nichols book-jam to slam Tam

Architecture & Design · Language & ideas
The biggest little kid we know has a new Taschen book (means loads of photos) which reminds us it’s a small world after all. Architectural historian and and Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee Founding Member Chris Nichols’ Walt Disney’s Disneyland tells the tale of the transformation of a southern California orange grove into the mother ...

Sasha Waltz ‘Kreatur’ in U.S. premiere at German Currents Film Festival

Dance · Film
The acclaimed German dance company, Sasha Waltz & Guests, will celebrate the US premiere of its critically hailed dance film, Kreatur, as the closing night event of the German Currents Film Festival, presenting outstanding German, Austrian and Swiss Films in Los Angeles. The annual festival now in its 12th year runs from October 19 – ...