The Right Moves
Just a few months later, on July 29, the storied 79-year-old artist whose career spanned six decades died in his Manhattan home of complications from a stroke suffered four days earlier. Vigorous until near the end, he had been one of ballet and Broadway's greatest innovators and a winner of two Oscars, five Tonys and an Emmy. "His influence not just in dance but also in theater cannot be re-created," says Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theater. "Losing Jerry is like losing a parent. There is a void."
Robbins combined the lyricism of classical ballet with the verve of Broadway in more than a dozen shows and some 60 ballets (often in collaboration with such giants as Leonard Bernstein and Mikhail Baryshnikov) including stage classics The King and I (1951), West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). With his dancing gang members, strippers and, as in On the Town (1944), sailors on leave, "he brought the ballet to the man on the street," says Saland.
Achieving perfection came at a cost. "To create what he created takes a lot of soul and heart and energy," says Robbins's only sibling, Sonia Cullinen, 86. "He was consumed by his work," agrees Miami City Ballet director Edward Villella. "Sometimes he would not request but demand. You had to understand him." Many did—lining up to audition for his next show. "They didn't always like him, but they respected him," says Robert Wise, who co-directed the movie West Side Story with him.
Less forgiving were the eight colleagues Robbins identified as members of a Communist arts group in 1953 testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Though he had belonged to the group, he was exonerated after telling the committee it was "a great mistake." While he continued working, the others found roles scarce.
Robbins was born Jerome Rabinowitz in New York City in 1918 to Russian émigré parents—Harry, a corset maker, and Lena, a home-maker. He could pick out a tune on the piano when he was just 3 and, by his teens, dreamed of a life in ballet—a wish that irked his father. Recalls Cullinen: "My father screamed, 'You should be a shoemaker.' You don't have a boy dancing in a Jewish family."
But at 16, in the midst of the Depression, he left home to dance, at times scrubbing floors to pay for ballet lessons. He first appeared on Broadway in chorus lines in 1938, then landed his big break in 1944 when he choreographed and danced in the hit ballet Fancy Free, which was later expanded to On the Town.
Robbins, who stopped performing at 34, spent most of his years creating uniquely American dances for the New York City Ballet, which contrasted nicely with Russian-born ballet master George Balanchine's classical approach. Robbins's last major theater project was the 1989 retrospective, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, starring the then little-known Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame. Last year, the NYCB premiered his final ballet: Brandenburg.
The lifelong bachelor spent his final days at his East Side townhouse. Cullinen asked that after his death he be dressed in the red bridegroom's shirt worn by the lead dancer in the well-received May revival of Robbins's ballet Les Noces. "He couldn't separate himself from what he did," says former ballerina Saland of Robbins's insistence that he keep working. "We were his family. And he was a difficult papa."
Julia Campbell and Matt Birkbeck in New York City and Susan Christian Goulding in Los Angeles