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Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins has long been considered one of the top American dancers and choreographers. His eclectic range, stretching from classical ballet and modern dance to contemporary theater, allowed him to crisscross artistic streets. He moved seamlessly from the ballet stage to Broadway to movies. In his time, Robbins created more than 60 acclaimed ballets, many of which remain in the repertories of the New York City Ballet. For those who aren’t connoisseurs of the ballet, Robbins is known for his fast-paced, jaunty Broadway productions. He directed and choreographed some of the biggest hits ever to play on the Great White Way, including West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy and Peter Pan. He didn’t stop there. He won the 1961 Best Director Academy Award for the movie adaptation of West Side Story (1961). In short, he was a man who got around town.

Born Jerome Wilson Robinowitz on Oct. 11, 1918, his career spanned more than 60 years. He began dancing in the choruses of Broadway shows, including Keep Off the Grass, which was choreographed by George Balanchine. As his experience as a dancer grew, so did his desire to choreograph his own works. In 1944, he landed center-stage with Fancy Free, a quintessential American ballet which he choreographed while on the road with the American Ballet Theatre. With jazz music by Leonard Bernstein, who was an unknown at the time, the story involves three sailors, two women and a dance-off [source: ABT]. Robbins incorporated his personal experiences into his work. The work he did for Fiddler on the Roof was inspired by his Russian-Jewish roots and the experiences of his parents as immigrants to the United States [source: Catton]. Robbins was also interested in integrating different cultural styles into his work. His 1958 work, NY Export: Opus Jazz, was a blend of ballet, jazz and ballroom dancing. Its score was astonishing, incorporating African, Latin and American music into the production. The work was revived by New York’s City Ballet in 2005 and a film adaptation was made in 2010 [source: Opus Jazz].

Like many dancers in the early to mid-20th century, Robbins’ style was a mix. His first training was based on Martha Graham’s modern dance techniques. Later, he moved to ballet, embracing the neoclassic styles of George Balanchine. This combination is evident in Robbins’ work. Robbins’ choreography stressed the loosening of traditional ballet forms. Dancers in his pieces often “walk flat-footed or run across the stage” [source: Catton]. These techniques allowed him to incorporate the feeling of the streets, which was so important in the staging and narrative of a play like West Side Story.

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