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Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About-- documentary in the American Masters series


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#1 bart

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Posted 18 February 2009 - 08:13 PM

The show just ended. Any thoughts? impressions? criticisms?

For a start, here's James Wolcott's Vanity Fair blog, courtesy of dirac's Links for today.

http://www.vanityfai...ilence-the.html

#2 Jack Reed

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Posted 18 February 2009 - 09:50 PM

Basically I agree with Wolcott, it's a fine television program, nothing stale in the whole two hours, all very fresh. If it seemed to me to falter after seventy minutes, that was because it was true to its subject, some of whose work seemed to me to become routine or trite, though he says that he finally began to feel okay about what he had accomplished. I was glad for him, not least because in the part about his caving in to pressure to name "fellow travelers" as they were called (though maybe not in the program), which I hadn't known about, I felt for him; I could not easily condemn what he did, even though he did, apparently. I felt he was torn, but that was true about much of his life.

I also didn't know about Balanchine's eruption, though I did know Mr. B could be pretty angry sometimes.

Not the least virtue of the program is how well we could see the dancing, all the way through! I didn't assume that, and so it was another happy surprise. But the director, Judy Kinberg, has worked with Merrill Brockway, the director of most of the PBS "Dance in America" programs years ago, and knows how putting dance on screen looks at its best.

#3 sandik

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 12:37 AM

Basically I agree with Wolcott, it's a fine television program, nothing stale in the whole two hours, all very fresh. If it seemed to me to falter after seventy minutes, that was because it was true to its subject, some of whose work seemed to me to become routine or trite, though he says that he finally began to feel okay about what he had accomplished.


I think part of that comes from the standard biography/life span structure the producers chose to use. I heard someone talking about writing biography a few years ago, and she observed that many of the subjects of biographies were at their most interesting toward the middle of their lives -- their youth might be formative, but not always, and the nature of human beings is that they often lost some of their potency toward the end of their lives, unless they're cut artificially short. If a biographer follows the birth-life-death arc in their own work, the opening and closing are in danger of being less powerful than the middle.

Not the least virtue of the program is how well we could see the dancing, all the way through! I didn't assume that, and so it was another happy surprise. But the director, Judy Kinberg, has worked with Merrill Brockway, the director of most of the PBS "Dance in America" programs years ago, and knows how putting dance on screen looks at its best.


And since quite a bit of the footage Kinberg had to work with came from earlier Dance in America programs, she was quite fortunate.

Tangentially, who was it dancing the extended duet from The Cage? Either I missed the attribution, or they didn't include one.

#4 EricMontreal22

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 02:21 AM

I loved it, although having just read two books on the man I didn't really hear anything new (the aforementioned Mr B eruption aside). I was sorry there was next to no new Broadway footage--apparantly there was footage of Comedy Tonight from Forum but the rights were too hard to secure. They even used the Fiddler film instead of stage performances--ironic since, although the film largely recreated Robbins' stage choreography, Robbins was really unhappy with the film and said it was a completely different animal than the show he created for stage.

However there was TONS of ballet clips that I had never seen before--it made me wish we'd get a show of those clips in full following the bio. In particular I was glad to see The Cage in part as well as the Chopin works which were gorgeous.
They were wise to focus on his profesional life, although I might have liked a bit more of the personal stuff (I wondered if we got the Monty Clift stuff in there because he was a known star that audiences would know? Certainly he wasn't by any means the longest male relationship of Robbins'). As an aside, it's funny to see James Mitchell as one of the interviewed "talking heads" who I grew up with as Palmer on All My Children--I often forget he was such an accomplished ballet and Broadway dancer (even though of course he's Curly in the Oklahoma film's dream ballet).

#5 Natalia

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 04:11 AM

I caught Heather Watts' name in the clip from The Cage. Forgot the guy's name.

I thoroughly enjoyed the documentary as a biography and less so for the few bits of ballet clips shown. I am sorry that ballet seemed to get the short end of the 'focus stick' compared to the Broadway segments. After an initial short balletic segment on Fancy Free and Interplay (with a wonderful clip of the original cast of the latter!), it was over one solid hour of Broadway. Thankfully, I 'stuck with it' until ballet reappeared for the final 30 minutes (with some more B'way and movies thrown in)! [Some fabulous clips of Darci Kistler in Goldberg Variations were my reward.] Such was Robbins' life, though...a mix of Broadway and ballet with Broadway being the dominant force...or the force that is best remembered by Joe and Jane Public. Broadway-type programs appear on PBS very often, almost as often as opera or antique roadshows; ballet does not.

Bottom Line: There's enough 'ballet' in Robbins' life to warrant a ballet-focused 2-hour documentary...to warrant something that would even MENTION In the Night, one of his undisputed masterpieces, here ignored. That would MENTION Brandenburgs or any of his other 1990s masterworks. That is yet to be done.

#6 bart

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 05:25 AM

I experienced two documentaries, intertwining. One was the full biography, obviously focused more on Broadway as well as his personal life. The other was ballet: the activity to which he was so powerfully drawn, especially when other sources of creative gratification seemed to have dried up.

The later ballets are treated as footnotes to his personal life. I wish they'd gotten Villella to talk about Windmill, which is ignored except for a few stills. The ballet is probably unrevivable; but the link to Robbins' personality would have been more interesting that, for instance, In Memory of ... which gets more of screen time than better work.

[Edited to add: carbro has kindly reminded me that the ballet is Watermill, NOT Windmill. Thanks, carbro.]

The comments from surviving members of his early Broadway casts and from the West Side Story film were fascinating. I wish they had gotten a few of the NYCB dancers -- not principals -- who were part of Robbins' one-going workshop/laboratory/company within a company and who worked for him intensely and endlessly as he created and tinkered with pieces. Lots of stories could be told there, I'll bet.

I'll be fast forwarding to look again (and again) at some of those clips, which have an especially powerful effect when you were actually there and were able to watch the live performance in the theater ... or even sitting in front of the tv and wataching the Ed Sullivan Show with just about everybody else in the US.

The dancers and others who commented as "talking heads" were marvellous -- and looked amazing: not so much "young" as "timeless." Does anyone know how long ago those parts were shot?

Right now, the images that is sticking in my head are the same as Natalia's: Dances at a Gathering, Goldberg Variations, and In the Night. A couple brought tears to my eyes as they brought back old feelings about a dancer here, a movement there. I would add Antique Epigraphs, which was ravishing on film and which I admit I had more or less forgotten. I wish there had been more of Glass Pieces.

I admit that the most vivid image is that of Imogene Coca and the unidentified male dancer in the spoof of Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun. Nancy Walker's Odette, on point (sort of), is almost as wonderful.

Saddest are the regrets for Robbins performances, and especially dancers, not seen or not remembered. Makarova's In the Night, for instance. She is ravishing.

#7 printscess

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 05:29 AM

I absolutely enjoyed the program. I Tivo-ed to add to my PBS collection on dance (Jock Soto).

As always, my heart stopped when the music to West Side Story started. For me that was the evening's highlight. I thought, where do you go from that masterpiece? What is after that? Apparently quite a lot. I thought it was remarkable that at the end of both of their lives, Robbins and Bernstein became intensely interested, obsessed with their Jewishness and their fathers and tried to work out their complicated feelings about these two subjects through their art and were not very successful.

I think he was cowardly to name names and as such a huge talent that he was, would his career had died if he had refused? Of course not. I think even in the 40's and 50's, no one in the theater or ballet cared if you were gay. Of course that is 2nd guessing at this point but he did ruin some lives by naming names, as others had done. (I remember my parents not allowing me to watch The Ed Sullivan Show because of his political views, although they relented when The Beatles appeared).

Dances at a Gathering was a special highlight for me as was Fancy Free. I will never be able to see Fancy Free again in the same light, now that I know the basis for the 3 sailors, which is a nice thing. Basically, the casting has not change.

I would have like to have seen more of Edward Villela.

#8 bart

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 05:46 AM

I just noticed the dvd is availble from Amazon at a discount ($21.99).

To order form our sponsor Amazon, please click the box above -- or this link:
http://www.amazon.co...t...1050&sr=1-1

Princtess, I agree that the gay issue was not significant within the theater world in the 40s 50s -- but many careers were destroyed by the power of this issue in the outside world. Ed Sullivan -- linked to the FBI, Cardinal Spellman's branch of the Roman Catholic Church, etc. -- was huge and oddly obsessed with exposing linkages between homosexuality and World Communism.

Jerome Robbins, like all theater people, lived in two worlds: the real world and the world of his peers and colleagues. The peers and colleagues didn't care if he was gay but DID care if he betrayed other theater people. (For example, Arthur Laurents: "You're a sh-t.") The "real world" had it the other way around.

#9 atm711

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 06:07 AM

The clips of the original cast of 'Fancy Free' was something to die for :) I always knew what I was missing in today's interpretations and that brought it all to light for me. The clip of Baryshnikov in the Kriza variation was pretty bad--- :wink: The part was alien to him. I loved the clip of 'Interplay' in the original costumes worn by Ballet Theatre. Before it was danced by Ballet Theatre the ballet was first seen in a Broadway revue (Seven Lively Arts??) and the costumes were very eclectic and the new design greatly improved the ballet by making the dancers more cohesive.

#10 sz

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 06:53 AM

>>Saddest are the regrets for Robbins performances, and especially dancers,
>>not seen or not remembered.

Gelsey K., Helgi T., E. Villella (dancing film), Kyra Nichols, Helene A., Peter Boal, Wendy Whelan...
In Fancy Free, I missed ABT's fabulous men: JM Carreno, A. Corella, H. Cornejo who owned Fancy Free in my opinion as compared to NYCB.


Kept thinking that if a documentary could cover Jerry's life and works in 2 hours, that it would take at least 8 hours to begin Mr. B's..... Where is that documentary??!!!

#11 Natalia

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 07:55 AM

I can't believe that nobody else was disappointed by the relatively paltry treatment of ballet versus Broadway.

Bart, was there really a clip of In the Night? I saw a lot of Dances at a Gathering and a couple of seconds of Other Dances but no In the Night. It was not even mentioned. The bits with the original cast of Fancy Free, Interplay and the Goldbergs were truly original, as well as bits of Dybbuk and Les Noces but all other clips came from shows that had already been telecast in this country or elsewhere.

The twice-shown rolling of credits listing 10,000 contributors by name was longer than the showing of rare ballet clips.

#12 Hans

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 09:17 AM

They did mention 'In the Night'--Peter Martins briefly talked about how difficult it was.

#13 Farrell Fan

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 09:21 AM

I agree with Natalia that the program was heavily weighted in favor of Broadway -- ballet was made to seem a sideline for Robbins. During the ballet portions I was glad that the "talking heads" went beyond the usual suspects. I especially appreciated Bart Cook and Maria Calegari.

#14 bart

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 10:22 AM

Bart, was there really a clip of In the Night?

I'm quote possibly wrong here. (I left the room breefly, missed the intro, and returned only when Makarova and Baryshnikov were dancing in practice wear. It was just a snippet. Makarova was in red. Which ballet was that?

Your point about the 10,000 contributors listed in the credits is something I noticed too. Clearly, these documentaries are complex -- and costly -- things, when one considers the rights that have to be obtained and the need to acknowledge every single person who did even the slightest bit to assist.

I kept thinking about BT contributor 4mrdncr and the heroic job of putting Corrella and his new company on film. These film-makers deserve our deep, deep thanks. :wink:

atm711 -- it WAS extraordinary to see the original film of Interplay. Having just seen the full ballet performed by ABTII in sleek contemporary costumes, I am astonished by how different this ballet now "looks" -- on the surface at least.

#15 papeetepatrick

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 11:05 AM

I think he was cowardly to name names and as such a huge talent that he was, would his career had died if he had refused? Of course not. I think even in the 40's and 50's, no one in the theater or ballet cared if you were gay. Of course that is 2nd guessing at this point but he did ruin some lives by naming names, as others had done. (I remember my parents not allowing me to watch The Ed Sullivan Show because of his political views, although they relented when The Beatles appeared).

Dances at a Gathering was a special highlight for me as was Fancy Free. I will never be able to see Fancy Free again in the same light, now that I know the basis for the 3 sailors, which is a nice thing. Basically, the casting has not change.


I hadn't even known about this, and just did a bit of googling--he apparently named more names than anyone else. One of the strange things about both HUAC and the Army-McCarthy hearings is that they were ineffectual, but about something that actually did exist, in the sense that Soviet spies really were everywhere, and these red-scare movements were kinds of intuitions of that, but maybe wrong-headed or just incompetent. Thomas Powers book on the CIA makes this point, I wouldn't have known it otherwise.

Maybe one of the few major artists whose work I've seen a great deal of and knew nothing about his personal life. I think I didn't even know he was gay--oh lord, I never looked him up! Just read that he also rescued the original production of 'Funny Girl', which I had forgotten he choreographed--not a great dance show like some of the more famous Robbins works, but definitely things like 'Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat' must have been smart-looking due to his contribution (and :wink: for B'way fans, I just saw that that show was nominated for all the major Tonys and won not a single one, losing every one to Hello, Dolly! which is pretty bad, especially when you compare the two scores, the Styne is light-years beyond the Herman). Used to love Dances at a Gathering back in the 70s, and also Other Dances, and always 'fancy free'. Abhor 'Glass Pieces', think it one of the most pedestrian and pretentious things I've ever seen. 'In Memory of...' okay, but somewhat artificial--I've seen grief done a lot better elsewhere. What I'd be most interested in is his Bernstein collaboration on the Age of Anxiety, which I made a separate post for, but nobody responded who had seen it. It had gotten good reviews, but I doubt has been revived. Started with Tanaquil LeClerq in the cast, and later Melissa Hayden would have been good too, because she always was.

printscess, I'm always impressed when people have parents like that, and even like that humorous twist of an exception they made for the Beatles (indeed, that was a thrilling moment when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan.)


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