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Alla

Review of Jerome Robbins bio

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Hi from a new participant in this wonderful forum. Not sure where exactly to post this, but there's an interesting review of Greg Lawrence's "Dance With Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins" in the current New Republic (edition of July 9 & 16; no link to it on the website, alas). The writer is Jennifer Homans, a former dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

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Thank you, Alla. Welcome to Ballet Alert! Since the link isn't on line and many of us won't have a New Republic close to hand, could you tell us a bit about the review? (And the book, if you've read it.)

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Sure. The book is the first biography of Robbins, so it was eagerly awaited, but unfortunately it is not very good. The author, Greg Lawrence (the co-author of Gelsey Kirkland's two books), didn't have access to the personal papers that Robbins left behind (the bio is unauthorized). His research basically consisted of loads and loads of interviews -- some fascinating, some just gossipy -- which he strung together to make a book. His approach is anecdotal and psychological rather than analytical, and he gives very little insight into Robbins' works. In fact, in turning them into psychological exposés, Lawrence distorts certain pieces to the point of unrecognizability. The book is worth reading for a timeline of Robbins' life and works and a few good stories, but it fails miserably at offering any deeper insight into Robbins the creator.

The New Republic review spends a few paragraphs panning the book, which is sort of fun, but I was most interested in Homans' suggestion that the trouble with Robbins' later ballets ("A Suite of Dances," "Brandenburg," etc.) was not (as some have argued) that he was trying to imitate Balanchine, but rather that after "Dances at a Gathering," "Robbins' fascination for unvarnished movement had led him to an excruciating dead end." The exquisite craftsmanship and easy style you see in his best ballets became, in the 1980s, merely predictable. Homans writes: "There wasn't enough texture, grit, life." I too have been perplexed watching ballets like "Brandenburg," feeling that while they're all nice enough, the payoff is minimal.

That said, and this is another of Homans' observations, the NYCB dancers seem to relax in Robbins ballets in a way they can't anymore in Balanchine works, which demand a sort of sponaneity and freedom that's hard to come by in that company today. The Robbins ballets are better danced, Homans argues, because "Robbins sewed the instructions into the lining" (referring to his rigorous planning of every step, etc.) She seems to be suggesting that Robbins ballets are not "living organisms" in the way that Balanchine ballets are, and so they don't require so much in the way of vigorous, independent risk-taking (which, she suggests, doesn't much exist anymore at City Ballet).

It's an interesting argument, and I'd be curious to hear what others think about it.

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As an aside, it seems to me that a couple of reviewers have made too big a deal about Lawrence's not being permitted access to Robbins' papers and having the nerve to produce an unauthorized biography. I don't doubt that Robbins' papers have a lot of useful information, but after all we're not dealing with Thomas Jefferson here. And quite a few valuable biographies would never have appeared if the authors had folded their tents and stolen away after being denied "authorization." (Whether Lawrence's book is among these is another matter, of course.)

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Alla -

I'm going to extract a bit of your post about the current state of the Robbins and Balanchine rep (and the dancers) and make it into a discussion topic of its own.

Welcome and thanks for joining us!

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