Few would dispute that Jerome Robbins was one of the great theater directors and choreographers of the 20th century. Stephen Sondheim called him “the only genius I ever met.” But Robbins unleashed his creativity in two distinctly different realms. The Broadway Jerome Robbins conceived “West Side Story” and was a driving force behind “On the Town,” “Peter Pan,” “Gypsy,” “Funny Girl,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and many more. The ballet Jerome Robbins was a fine dancer who worked with Michel Fokine (who gave him the title role in “Petrouchka”), Agnes de Mille, and Antony Tudor, and who went on to be ballet master at New York City Ballet under George Balanchine.
In ballet, Robbins’s choreography always seemed to exist in Balanchine’s shadow — but perhaps that has started to change. A decade after Robbins’s death in 1998, PBS’s biopic “Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About” gave full weight to his ballet output, with clips from “Interplay,” “The Cage,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Dances at a Gathering,” and other works. The Paris Opera Ballet has just released a DVD with complete performances of “In G Major,” “In the Night,” and “The Concert.” And at Boston Ballet, Robbins’s “Fancy Free” is the title dance in a three-piece program that begins Thursday.
Robbins’s status has definitely risen recently at Boston Ballet. In the 20 seasons prior to 2010-11, the company performed just one Robbins work, “Interplay,” in 2001. Last May, artistic director Mikko Nissinen programmed “Afternoon of a Faun” and “Antique Epigraphs,” the latter a piece that in the 28 years since its 1983 premiere had never been danced by a company other than NYCB. For this season’s finale, Nissinen has chosen Robbins’s 1944 breakthrough ballet as part of a program that will also include Harald Lander’s “Études” and Peter Martins’s “Barber Violin Concerto.”
Set to music by Leonard Bernstein, “Fancy Free” — which swiftly metamorphosed into “On the Town’’ — has a simple story line: Three sailors on shore leave in Manhattan meet two girls, then another, and compete for them with their best dance moves. Boston Ballet assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser knows the piece well, since he spent his entire performing career at NYCB. He never danced it onstage, he says, “but I learned it, and I had some private rehearsals with Jerry, and I learned a great deal about it as I worked with him.”
Each of the three sailors has his own personality. The third sailor is the one Robbins himself danced at the premiere. “The rumba boy,” Kaiser explains, “the Jerry boy, he’s the Valentino character. He portrays himself as knowing everything, but he’s just as young and naive as everyone else. The second-variation boy, he’s kind of the guy from Nebraska, he grew up in the fields, so he’s kind of that simple country boy. And then the little guy, he’s the cocky, arrogant one. He’s a little tough guy; that’s what he is.”
As for the three girls, Kaiser says, “They’re a little less defined. They’re certainly women of the era, from 1944. Jerry would stop rehearsal and go, ‘So, where do you live?’ And somebody would naively say, ‘Oh, I live on 85th Street.’ And Jerry would go, ‘No, where does the person you’re dancing live? What did you have for breakfast this morning? What songs do you listen to? What do you like to do on your day off?’ He challenged you to develop your character, to know it so intimately that it just came out of you. So that’s what we do with these girls. We’re guiding it toward social etiquette of the ’40s and keeping it real and genuine, and nothing contrived.”
Boston Ballet soloist Whitney Jensen had never danced a Robbins work till last May, when she was partnered with Sabi Varga in “Afternoon of a Faun.” Now she’ll be doing “Fancy Free.” She says that Jean-Pierre Frohlich, the NYCB ballet master who staged “Faun” for Boston Ballet, “described the characters and how they’re normal people. He didn’t want us to act, just to be kind of natural. As simple as that sounds, it was actually a little more difficult to just be normal and natural.”
Frohlich is also staging “Fancy Free.” “He gave me this back story on the girl that I’m dancing,” Jensen says, “so I could go onstage and already have a past going on.”
She’s partnered with Varga again. “I feel like my character is a little taken aback by Sabi’s character at first,” she says. “Then she slowly decides to let him in. But she also holds her ground on some parts — ‘Don’t go too fast. I’m not that easy.’ She’s classy, I feel, but she can also be very fun and let loose.”
The PBS bio took its title from a remark Robbins made to Irving Berlin: “Give me something to dance about and I’ll dance it.” It’s been said Robbins was more effective when he had a story to tell. But Kaiser says that, for Robbins, there were always stories.
“When you’ve worked with Jerry,” he says, “you realize that even in the pieces that didn’t have a story the way ‘Fancy Free’ or a ‘West Side Story’ did, there was a story in his head. His pure dance pieces, ‘Dances at a Gathering,’ for instance, when you watched him rehearse that, he was creating people, and he was creating a human environment that we all were expected to live in. Obviously there were steps, and technique was important, but those were never the things that he emphasized. Jerry was really about creating worlds, creating environments that people live in, and creating real people.”