Who is Jerome Robbins?

By Boston Ballet Staff

James Whiteside, Paul Craig, and Isaac Akiba in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free

James Whiteside, Paul Craig, and Isaac Akiba in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free

Photo credit: Gene Schiavone

Get to know this extraordinarily prolific creator, whose work crisscrossed the realms of ballet, Broadway, film and television.

Ashley Ellis and Freda Locker in Jerome Robbins' The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody)

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Jerome Robbins (1918-1998)

Photo credit: © Frederic Ohringer

Ashley Ellis and Freda Locker in Jerome Robbins' The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody)

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Jerome Robbins (1918-1998)

Photo credit: © Frederic Ohringer

When Jerome Robbins choreographed Fancy Free in 1944, his legendary career was only just beginning. The man who brought us many of Broadway’s most beloved hits including West Side StoryOn the TownPeter Pan, and Fiddler on the Roof (to name just a few) forged a unique path.

He could have been a corset salesman…

Jerome Robbins, born Jerome Rabinowitz, was the son of working class Russian-Jewish immigrants. He enrolled as a student at New York University, but because of his failing grades and the lasting effects of the Depression, his parents insisted he drop out and work for the family business, the Comfort Corset Company. 

Or a puppeteer

Instead, he sought out an apprenticeship in puppeteering with Tony Sarg, who had a successful touring marionette show. When this turned out to be a dead-end, Jerry found a teacher and mentor in Senya Gluck-Sandor, whose Dance Center was leading the way for modern dance in New York City. Robbins was a quick study of Sandor’s theatrical, expressionistic style, and in return for running errands and putting up posters, he was granted access to dance and choreography classes. 

He was a Jack-of-all-trades…

In addition to modern dance and ballet training, the young Robbins was choreographing burlesque-style sketches at a resort in the Poconos and dancing in Broadway choruses.

And master of many

In the summer of 1940, he was accepted into the corps of the recently formed Ballet Theatre (which would later become American Ballet Theatre) and quickly advanced to solo roles. His first major choreographic work was Fancy Free, a ballet about three sailors on shore leave in New York City. He tapped a young, unknown composer named Leonard Bernstein to write the music and the piece had a celebrated debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1944. A musical comedy based on the ballet called On The Town premiered on Broadway later that same year, and the MGM film version, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, opened just five years later.

George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins in rehearsal for Pulcinella

Choreography of Pulcinella by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins

Balanchine is a trademark of the George Balanchine Trust

He found a home at New York City Ballet…

In 1948, at the age of 30, Robbins wrote a fan letter to George Balanchine, offering to perform, choreograph, whatever was needed for the opportunity to work with New York City Ballet. To which Balanchine replied, “Come.” Robbins started as a featured dancer, and Balanchine soon revived Prodigal Son expressly for Robbins in the title role. Til Eulenspiegel and Bourée Fantasque were created for Robbins, the latter with his friend and longtime muse Tanaquil Le Clercq.

And a mentor, collaborator and lifelong friend in George Balanchine

Robbins was quickly appointed Associate Artistic Director of NYCB under Balanchine. Robbins’ ballets from this period, including The Guests, Age of Anxiety, The Cage, Afternoon of a Faun, and The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody), showcase his flair for drama and storytelling, his energy and inventiveness, and his comfort across a vast range of music and movement styles.

Balanchine and Robbins collaborated on dances for Firebird (1970) and Pulcinella (1972), and Robbins committed the majority of his professional life to ballet through the 1970s and ‘80s, with tremendous and varied contribution to the repertoire. Upon Balanchine’s death in 1983, Peter Martins and Robbins assumed the responsibilities of Co-Ballet Masters in Chief at NYCB.
 
In his final years, Robbins took a leave of absence from NYCB to stage Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, which recreated the most successful production numbers from his 50-plus year career. Despite failing health, he returned to NYCB in 1998 to restage his Les Noces, a monumental work on a score by Stravinsky. It was his final work in a lifetime dedicated to exploring and advancing the way audiences and dancers experience stories onstage.

Genius At Play

See Robbins work come to life on stage Sep 6–16

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

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director
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