Celebrating the Legacy of Jerome Robbins

Boston Ballet Staff

Jerome Robbins, courtesy of New York City Ballet.

Jerome Robbins

Courtesy of New York City Ballet.

Remembering Robbins

Assistant Artistic Director Russell Kaiser reflects on working with Jerome Robbins and performing his Glass Pieces with New York City Ballet.

Russell Kaiser

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Lia Cirio and Paulo Arrais with artists of Boston Ballet rehearsing Glass Pieces, choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Russell Kaiser

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Lia Cirio and Paulo Arrais with artists of Boston Ballet rehearsing Glass Pieces, choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Working with a “Reigning Genius”

Boston Ballet Assistant Artistic Director Russell Kaiser formed a unique relationship with ballet and Broadway legend Jerome Robbins, whom he fondly calls Jerry. Having performed many of his works during an 11-year career with New York City Ballet, Kaiser is now coaching Boston Ballet dancers on Robbins’ distinctive style and aesthetic. As the Company rehearses the premiere of Glass Pieces in a program celebrating Robbins’ centennial, Kaiser reflects on his experience working with the “reigning genius” and the honor of carrying on his legacy at Boston Ballet.

What was your experience working with Robbins?

I had an extraordinary experience with Jerry. He taught me so much about stage craft and character development. We worked together for 11 years, and I was fortunate enough to be in almost all of his new ballets that he did during my time there.

I used to follow Jerry around when I wasn’t rehearsing. I would go sit in on rehearsals and watch him. One day, he stopped me in the hallway and said, “Why are you always following me?” And I said, “I’m learning.” And he said, “Good for you” and continued walking.

If you were at rehearsal with Jerry sitting at the front of the stage and you saw him just start to smile and giggle, you knew you were successful. He was able to sit back and go, “I’m enjoying this so much.” Those were the extraordinary moments.

How did he approach his work with dancers?

To me, Jerome Robbins is about creating a world, creating an atmosphere. He saw everyday things around him and brought them to life on stage. He wanted to depict real, genuine, and authentic people. His very first ballet, Fancy Free, was simply about sailors in New York. He didn’t want you to pretend to be a sailor. He wanted you to believe you were a sailor.

Jerry would challenge you about the character you were portraying. At rehearsal, he would stop me and ask, “What did you have for breakfast today?” I would say, “I had a bagel.” Then he would say, “No. What did your character have for breakfast?” You needed to know what your apartment looked like, what the bus trip to work was like, what restaurants you liked to go to, or what records were in your collection. He wanted those answers, and you had to be prepared to give them.

Robbins is being celebrated across the country in honor of his centennial. How does that make you feel, having been a part of and now continuing his legacy?

It’s incredibly special to be able to help his work live on in whatever small way I might be able, and to share the stories he gave us. Jerry was an icon. We can’t replace him, but we can try to share the essence of what he wanted out of us.

Can you share any insider tidbits about who he was?

Something not as well known about Jerry was that he loved dogs. I had a dog, Sarah, who I would sometimes bring with me to the studio. Sarah was very well-behaved, and she would sit under the piano in the studio and watch rehearsal. At the start of rehearsal, Jerry would come in and sit on the floor for ten minutes and play with my dog. After that, he’d be in a great mood.

Anais Chalendard and Desean Taber rehearsing Glass Pieces, choreography by Jerome Robbins, photo by Brooke Trisolini

Anaïs Chalendard and Desean Taber rehearsing Glass Pieces. Choreography by Jerome Robbins

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Bringing Glass Pieces to Boston Ballet

What was it like to perform Glass Pieces with New York City Ballet?

I have a lot of amazing memories dancing two different roles in this ballet. I danced the first movement as a principal and then as one of the ensemble in two of the movements. Most of my dancing career was with Jerry. He was the reigning genius at New York City Ballet. To now bring this ballet that I was fortunate enough to dance in to Boston Ballet is special.

How is Glass Pieces different from his other works?

Glass Pieces is a little different from his other ballets because it really is more of a dance piece. He made a lot of pieces for principal dancers, but Glass Pieces was about featuring the corps de ballet, which was unprecedented. At that time, not many companies had the capacity or the dancers to put an ensemble of 42 dancers on stage, so it was incredibly powerful when he did. People afterwards said, “You made the corps de ballet look phenomenal.” That was what was so amazing about dancing that ballet. The energy comes out of that ensemble.

Can you talk more about the atmosphere that is created in Glass Pieces? How do you interpret the movement?

It’s all about the community that is created on stage. No one piece can operate on its own. If any one piece is off, the mechanism doesn’t work and the ballet completely falls apart. In the first movement, the dancers simply walk in random patterns, just like pedestrians walking in Times Square. That was the environment, the energy on stage that Jerry created. You are completely connected to those people around you. It’s about working together, and nothing exists successfully without that community being alive. I found it inspiring to create that world as a dancer, and even more so to experience it now as a ballet master and viewer.

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director