Jerome Robbins, in 1947 the king of high/low art


Sept. 7, 1947 Ballerinas following the steps of Jerome Robbins, who choreographed

In this photo dated September 7, 1947, choreographer Jerome Robbins coaches chorus kids in ballet. He’s preparing dancers for “High Button Shoes” [music Jule Styne, lyrics Sammy Cahn, book Stephen Longstreet, direction George Abbott, choreography Jerome Robbins]. The show opened October 9 1947 at the Century Theatre on Broadway, then moved to London’s West End the following year, a pond-jumping pattern Robbins would repeat for “West Side Story” in 1959. The number in rehearsal, as described in Wikipedia:

The highlight of the original production was a long (7-10 minute) ensemble dance number (“The Bathing Beauty Ballet”, to the song “On a Sunday by the Sea”) at the beginning of the second act. Choreographer Robbins staged this number in the manner of a Mack Sennett silent slapstick film. It uses the music of “On A Sunday By the Sea”, Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, and Offenbach’s can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld. “This number was so basic to the show that deleting it would render the evening incoherent. It was a major evocation of a period, a tribute to silent-film comedy.”

Amanda Vaill, in her biography of Robbins describes this dance number: “The actors career across the stage, in and out of a row of boardwalk bathhouses, slamming doors, falling, rolling, leaping to their feet, colliding with one another, in a masterpiece of intricately plotted chaos that bears all the marks of the developing Robbins style: wit, character, drama, and precision.”

artisticcommitteeThe forties were a critical decade for American ballet. Robbins was a key influencer, a popularizer, a democratizer of ballet. Like Agnes deMille, Eugene Loring, and others, he staked a claim for Americans in a European art form.

Meanwhile, uptown from Times Square, also in 1947, Jerry’s “other” life on view in the photo, at right, in which the members of the Artistic Committee of [American] Ballet Theatre convene:  Jerome Robbins, Lucia Chase, Agnes de Mille, Oliver Smith and Aaron Copland.

Robbins’s exceptional “high-low” instincts were a gift to American dance.

Top photo: New York Times, The Lively Morgue
Side photo: Cecil Beaton, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

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