Robbins’s Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jerome Robbins’s first full-length ballet, Fancy Free, set to the music of Leonard Bernstein, launched a long and illustrious career for Robbins as a choreographer both of ballet and of Broadway musicals.

Summary of Event

Late in World War II, the New York dance scene was jolted into unexpected recognition of its potential for snappy contemporary commentary and youthful vitality by a new ballet created by a group of remarkable novices. Fancy Free (1944) was the result of a fruitful collaboration among a youthful group consisting of dancer-turned-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein—who had recently made the front page of The New York Times for his dazzling debut conducting the New York Philharmonic—and Oliver Smith, a gifted set designer. The ballet marked the beginning of Robbins’s long and distinguished career as a choreographer of Broadway shows and ballets and also marked the emergence of Bernstein as a composer of serious music who maintained clear links to popular music. Fancy Free (Robbins and Bernstein) Choreography;ballet Ballet [kw]Robbins’s Fancy Free Premieres (Apr. 18, 1944)[Robbinss Fancy Free Premieres] [kw]Fancy Free Premieres, Robbins’s (Apr. 18, 1944) Fancy Free (Robbins and Bernstein) Choreography;ballet Ballet [g]North America;Apr. 18, 1944: Robbins’s Fancy Free Premieres[01140] [g]United States;Apr. 18, 1944: Robbins’s Fancy Free Premieres[01140] [c]Dance;Apr. 18, 1944: Robbins’s Fancy Free Premieres[01140] [c]Music;Apr. 18, 1944: Robbins’s Fancy Free Premieres[01140] [c]Theater;Apr. 18, 1944: Robbins’s Fancy Free Premieres[01140] Robbins, Jerome Bernstein, Leonard Smith, Oliver

Robbins, who was at that time a dancer with the Ballet Theatre Ballet Theatre , sought out Bernstein at the suggestion of two of the composers with whom he had shared his ideas for a new ballet. The composers, Morton Gould Gould, Morton and Vincent Persichetti Persichetti, Vincent , thought Bernstein’s musical sensibilities would mesh with Robbins’s developing choreographic style. Robbins therefore approached Bernstein in October, 1943, while Bernstein was an assistant to Arthur Rodzinski, the director of the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein recalled that he “played a few bars” of music he had been “fooling around with,” and Robbins “went wild. ’That’s it! That’s it!’ he screamed. And we were off.”

A month later, Bernstein made his spectacular conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, garnering a front-page rave review from The New York Times, when he filled in for the indisposed Bruno Walter on short notice. Perhaps on the strength of Bernstein’s instant celebrity, the impresario Sol Hurok Hurok, Sol bought the ballet and offered to produce it for the Ballet Theatre. Fancy Free premiered on April 18, 1944, at the old Metropolitan Opera House, with a group of dancers for whom the roles were tailor-made: Harold Lang, John Kriza, and Robbins himself danced the parts of three sailors; Muriel Bentley, Janet Reed, and Shirley Eckl were the three girls in their lives; and Rex Cooper danced the part of the bartender. The ballet was an instant success and was danced more than 160 times in the first year following its premiere.

Fancy Free takes place in a small neighborhood bar on a hot summer night in New York during wartime. The music begins informally, not with an overture or even with music from the pit but with an onstage phonograph recording. “Big Stuff” "Big Stuff" (Bernstein)[Big Stuff] was written partly in homage to the blues singer Billie Holiday, and it helps set the tone of loneliness and yearning on a hot summer night; it is rudely interrupted by four brisk big-band drum taps. Three sailors on leave arrive in search of a good time. They are desperate to have some fun during their moment of liberty, and their dancing reveals both their solidarity as a trio and their sense of fun. The first two sailors trick their companion into paying for their drinks, then each vies for the attention of the first girl who walks by. They preen and scuffle for her attention, with two sailors knocking down the third and chasing after the girl.

The odd sailor out meets a pretty girl back at the bar, and rather than woo her overtly, he begins to mime his experiences in the war. They conclude a gentle pas de deux with a shy kiss. The first two sailors return with their girl, creating the problem of an unequal ratio of sailors to girls. In a kind of latter-day judgment of Paris, the girls are to judge among the sailors according to their dancing skills. The first offers a show-off routine of as many classic steps as he can muster. The second (now often danced by the sailor of the blues duet) offers a subdued, insinuating number. The remaining sailor provides his audience with a slightly satirical, Latin-inflected number.

When it seems that the girls are undecided or possibly indifferent, the dance contest deteriorates into a barroom brawl, from which the sailors emerge to discover that the girls have fled. After reconciling, the sailors sensibly have a second drink, and they begin the whole process again as another beautiful girl walks by. Neither closure nor fulfillment but instead a renewal of the cycle of desire will be the fate of the sailors.

Fancy Free was remarkable for the confluence of new talents that fortuitously collaborated in its creation. The score was Bernstein’s first big hit, and it confirmed the instant celebrity he had enjoyed the previous fall for his conducting debut. It remains one of his most persuasive scores, written in the 1940’s idiom that remained the hallmark of his best work. Robbins, with a young dancer’s enthusiasm, threw every step he knew into the work (most conspicuously in the first sailor’s display dance), and he asserted his place in the line of great American choreographers with the ballet.

Like Bernstein, Robbins went on to maintain a dual life, working both on Broadway and in the classical dance theater, although after Fiddler on the Roof (1964) he withdrew from Broadway for a quarter of a century. As a Broadway director, Robbins staged The Pajama Game (1954), Bells Are Ringing (1956), for Judy Holliday, and Peter Pan (1954), which was a hit vehicle for Mary Martin on both stage and television in the 1950’s, when Martin’s spectacular “flying” had to be performed live. As a Broadway choreographer, Robbins devised the dances for such diverse shows as The King and I (1951), Call Me Madam (1950), for Ethel Merman, High Button Shoes (1947), and Fiddler on the Roof.

Significance

Although American dance had already claimed a place in the world’s dance tradition through the work of such notable choreographers and dancers as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Agnes de Mille and through the vitality of dancing on the Broadway stage, it was barely prepared for the combination of urban-oriented, jazz-flavored, streetwise dancing of Fancy Free in 1944. Bernstein’s biographer, Joan Peyser, claimed to find it odd that audiences would respond in wartime to a lighthearted ballet about sailors on leave, but the image of playful, happy sailors in temporary respite from the rigors of war would seem exactly suited to the public mood in 1944. The eminent American dance critic Walter Terry was more succinct in explaining Fancy Free’s direct appeal: “The ballet has remained popular because the theme was projected in movement terms which were fresh, witty, and energetically American.”

In a fortuitous pairing of new talents, Robbins found an ideal collaborator in Bernstein, whose sparkling score for the ballet helped propel him into his long career as a successful Broadway composer. The collaboration of Bernstein, Robbins, and Smith bore further fruit in the successful Broadway musical On the Town (1944), which took an alternative view of a day in the life of three sailors on shore leave, and a decade later in the trio’s masterpiece, West Side Story (1957). The energy of Robbins’s choreography and the inventiveness of Bernstein’s score set the standard for the American musical in the late 1950’s. Robbins continued his successful collaboration with Bernstein in such further ballet scores as Facsimile (1946) and The Dybbuk (1974). They may well be best remembered by most of their admirers for West Side Story. Fancy Free (Robbins and Bernstein) Choreography;ballet Ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jowitt, Deborah. Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Biography of Robbins that details and celebrates his contributions to dance and to musical theater. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Long, Robert Emmet. Broadway, the Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors, 1940 to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2001. Study of Robbins’s career, including discussion of his predecessor, Agnes de Mille, and his successors: Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett, and Tommy Tune. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peyser, Joan. Bernstein: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1987. Designed to shock, this biography of America’s most esteemed musician confirmed long-standing suspicions about Bernstein’s personal life that were needlessly revealed at the end of the composer’s auspicious career. The new details, though, are less disheartening than is the mean-spiritedness of the author’s approach.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlundt, Christena L., Alexander Ramirez, et al. Dance in the Musical Theatre: Jerome Robbins and His Peers, 1934-1965: A Guide. New York: Garland, 1989. Surveys the careers of Robbins and his peers, those choreographers who commuted between Broadway and the formal dance stage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Terry, Walter. Ballet Guide. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975. Provides an extremely helpful overview of America’s serious dance repertory. By the dean of an older generation of dance critics.

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