Reading 9

The following passage is adapted from an article by Pia Catton titled “Dancing American” that first appeared in Humanities magazine (© 2009 Pia Catton).

  1. The premiere of Fancy Free, on
  2. April 18, 1944, catapulted twenty-
  3. five-year-old choreographer
  4. Jerome Robbins to stardom. He
  5. had created a category-defying
  6. ballet drawn from real American
  7. life: wartime New York was
  8. teeming with young men in
  9. uniform and gals in swishy dresses.
  10. He wasn’t the first choreographer
  11. to find inspiration in the common
  12. man, but he was at the red-hot
  13. center of a new approach to dance.
  14. From ballet to the musical theater,
  15. choreographers on these shores
  16. were creating works that did not
  17. always look to the past, but instead
  18. to the present and future.
  19. Fancy Free did not appear out of
  20. thin air. Robbins created it while
  21. employed as a dancer in the
  22. touring Ballet Theatre, which had
  23. been founded in 1940 and was
  24. fertile ground for stage artists.
  25. Though the company presented
  26. classical ballets, it encouraged new
  27. work. Soon though, Ballet Theatre,
  28. suffering from financial trouble,
  29. brought in a Russian management
  30. company to run things, and the
  31. results were distinctly Old World.
  32. As Robbins said in an interview,
  33. “I got tired of dancing in
  34. boots, bloomers, and a wig. I
  35. said ‘Why can’t we dance about
  36. American subjects? Why can’t we
  37. talk about the way we dance today
  38. and how we are now?’”
  39. Good question. The art form was
  40. stuck in grandiose territory.
  41. “Ballet was strictly an operatic
  42. spectacle,” as the current artistic
  43. director of American Ballet
  44. Theatre, Kevin McKenzie, said.
  45. “There was a lot of use of allegory
  46. and symbolism. Pretty much
  47. everyone was dead or a fairy or
  48. a swan or a mythical beast of
  49. some form.”
  50. But the rules, and the roles, were
  51. changing. De Mille had debuted
  52. the Western-themed Rodeo in
  53. 1942 for the Ballet Russe de Monte
  54. Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera
  55. House. In 1942, Antony Tudor
  56. created Pillar of Fire for Ballet
  57. Theatre, which took up
  58. contemporary issues with
  59. smoldering realism.
  60. From this crucible emerged
  61. Fancy Free, with its jazzy score by
  62. the then-unknown Leonard
  63. Bernstein and iconic set by Oliver
  64. Smith. In the one-act plot, the
  65. three chummy sailors befriend two
  66. girls, but as there aren’t enough
  67. girls to go around, the boys
  68. challenge each other to a dance-off.
  69. Robbins designed the three solos
  70. to suit the different talents of the
  71. dancers, himself and two close
  72. friends. His innovation was to
  73. make the dance and story
  74. seamless; the movements tell the
  75. story and enhance our
  76. understanding of the characters.
  77. By embracing American subjects,
  78. Robbins found a plentiful source
  79. for ideas that could be made into
  80. musical theater. Robbins’s
  81. ultimate talent was in his ability
  82. to communicate ideas in
  83. movement—with his own style. In
  84. ballet and on Broadway, Robbins
  85. set a new course that was essential
  86. to the development of American
  87. dance.
  88. That point cannot be made without
  89. comparison with Europe, where
  90. ballet companies were often
  91. established under the rubric of
  92. opera companies and sustained by
  93. royal or governmental patronage.
  94. In the opera house system, ballet
  95. was taught according to a strict
  96. technique that created a specific
  97. identity with a long-standing
  98. tradition. The Paris Opera Ballet
  99. has a different style from Moscow’s
  100. Bolshoi Ballet, which was trained
  101. to look quite different from the
  102. Kirov Ballet.
  103. Without these temples of tradition,
  104. American dancers pieced their
  105. training together. This
  106. intersection of different styles and
  107. techniques gave the dancers a
  108. different instrument from their
  109. European counterparts. Robbins’s
  110. early life provides a classic
  111. example. Raised in New Jersey, he
  112. was one of two children in a hard-
  113. working Russian-Jewish family.
  114. His sister, Sonia, studied dance
  115. with the devotees of Isadora
  116. Duncan and performed with
  117. Gluck Sandor’s expressionist
  118. dance troupe.
  119. Robbins studied the same Duncan
  120. technique, but his first formal
  121. training was in the style of Martha
  122. Graham. He later landed work as
  123. an apprentice in Sandor’s
  124. company, but it wasn’t until the
  125. fall of 1937 that he was advised to
  126. study ballet. Amanda Vaill writes,
  127. “In America, as opposed to
  128. decadent Old Europe, modern
  129. dance—which had evolved out of a
  130. peculiar confluence of theatrical
  131. dancing, physical culture, and
  132. female emancipation—was the
  133. thing.”