Man about town

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Dance and Broadway legend Jerome Robbins’s centennial year is celebrated at the Library for the Performing Arts with a major exhibit


  • Jerome Robbins dancing in his living room in 1959. Silver gelatin print. Photo: Philippe Halsman. ©Halsman Archive

  • A wall mural created from a portion of Diary #5. Robbins’s 24 diaries (1971-84) are shown together here for the first time. collage, 1973, Jerome Robbins. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

  • Robbins was famously demanding on performers. Left: A 1958 caricature of Robbins as a taskmaster by Jack Murray, a cast member of the Sharks in “West Side Story.” Right: “West Side Story” costume designs for the Jets by Irene Sharaff, 1957. Photo: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

  • New York City Ballet in Robbins’ “Glass Pieces” (1983), a dance in three parts, with music by Philip Glass. It captures the rhythm of the city. Photo: Costas Cacaroukas. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

  • One of the accordion journals in the section devoted to Robbins’s diaries. There is a mirror underneath to reflect the reverse side. Photo: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

  • Some 250 items are featured in the show, the vast majority culled from the archives of the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division. Photo: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

  • Gordon Parks (leaning over tripod) photographs original “Fancy Free” cast members Muriel Bentley, Janet Reed, Harold Lang, John Kriza and Jerome Robbins during a Times Square reunion in 1958. Silver gelatin print. Photographer unknown. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

  • Installation view: Robbins was always questioning his worth despite his immense success and tall ego. Photo: by Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

Close on the heels of the late Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday in August came collaborator Jerome Robbins’s 100th on October 11 (he died after suffering a stroke in 1998).

The city marked the occasion with a string of performances of the choreographer’s iconic ballets at Lincoln Center and three male solo dances at the Guggenheim, featuring members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, among other celebratory events.

The Wright café at the Guggenheim even offered a prix fixe “Robbins Centennial Tribute Dinner” — think Steak à la Robbins and Birthday Pâté à la Tanaquil (after French ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, who was married to George Balanchine and was a Robbins confidante). Delicious.

Now, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is showcasing an exhibit of some 250 items in homage to Robbins (born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz on the Lower East Side), the vast majority culled from the archives of its Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

“Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York” is curated by historian Julia Foulkes, author of “A Place for Us: ‘West Side Story’ and New York” (2016). She hopes visitors will be drawn to “the kind of things that he made that are not dances — because people already know them,” referring to legendary works such as “Fancy Free” (1944), his breakout ballet; “On the Town” (1944), the Broadway musical spin-off; “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), which he both directed and choreographed; and “West Side Story” (stage, 1957; screen, 1961). The latter won 10 Oscars in 1962, with Robbins snagging two awards, one for Best Director with Robert Wise, and an honorary award for “brilliant” choreography on film.

This dance master was a tireless observer of the city and its folkways, obsessively recording his impressions of ordinary things (sidewalks, walkers, rooftops, stoop dwellers, ferry riders, shoes, trash) in letters, diaries, journals, poems, drawings, paintings and films, all on abundant view here.

He wrote volumes about everything he saw, heard or felt and saved everything. No experience, it seems, was left unexamined. He liked to hang out and watch people hang out, camera in hand. And it was these very random observations of a city in motion that fed the art and helped forge an American style.

As Foulkes said: “I kind of love that the Library and his vast archive have allowed us to see the flip side of those very polished, perfected visions [on] stage ... how he was kind of messing around in the city in general, figuring out how to put these things on display.”

Some of the writings are quite endearing. Upon settling into his first apartment in Manhattan in 1940 on Seventh Avenue in midtown, he typed two pages describing his new digs — e.g., “The bathtub is half a tub long and a tub and a half high” — and made loopy sketches of himself scrunched up in the tub.

But in a city where you’ve gotta be tough, he was tough — famously so. There’s a caricature from 1958 in the “West Side Story” section depicting Robbins as a taskmaster with a whip.

“He may well have been the most hated man on Broadway. ‘Mean as a snake,’ said Helen Gallagher, a performer who worked with him on several shows,” Wendy Lesser writes in the opener of her new book, “Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance.”

“He felt he had to break everything down in order to build it up in a better form,” she continues. Foulkes agrees that Robbins did “treat people badly sometimes ... I don’t want to deny that.”

One of the most novel parts of the exhibit is the display of diaries Robbins created from 1971 to 1984. All 24 are shown together for the first time, with mirrors underneath two long foldouts to reflect the reverse sides.

“He meant them as aesthetic objects. He didn’t just choose a Woolworth scrapbook. He chose expensive, well-made, paper accordion journals from Takashimaya, a high-end Japanese department store on Fifth Avenue. He was deliberately creating something here not only for himself, but also as a kind of legacy,” the curator said.

The handwriting is tiny and, in some cases, awash with watercolor. The journals are bright collages riddled with ticket stubs, art photos, stamps, postmarks, pressed leaves and a cutout of Leo Tolstoy. These keepers are “incredibly intimate,” Foulkes said. “You get the sense of a person who is constantly on a quest.”

From an early age, Robbins yearned to belong and to find his place in the world. He was bisexual and racked with anxiety and doubt throughout his life, always questioning his worth despite his immense success and tall ego. When he migrated to Manhattan from Weehawken, New Jersey, as a young adult, New York became his comfort and his muse.

“The city is a meeting place between the self and the world for him,” the curator said. “He’s somebody who was incredibly interior, incredibly reflective and analytic.... But he wasn’t just that. He was constantly going out and observing. And it’s this play between himself and the world that I think makes so much of his art work so rich.”

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