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


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#16 sandik

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 11:09 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).


I'm 52, so my memories of the HUAC hearings and their context are second-hand, but I've always felt that the people called in front of that committee were hung in the middle -- damned if they named people who weren't already "out" and damned if they didn't. While it's true that Robbins' immediate colleagues in the theater wouldn't really care if he were gay, straight, bi or otherwise, the next layer out in the community, which would include funders, might care, or care if the general population thought less of them for being associated with someone who wasn't "normal." Remember, it wasn't until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from their list of "mental disorders." If I'm seeing the color-coding on the map correctly on the Wikipedia page on sodomy laws, the only state that had repealed them before 1970 was Illinois. Sadly, Robbins lived with a real threat at that time.

There's all kinds of speculation about what might have happened if someone who was truly popular, as Robbins was, stood up against the committee, and I'm sad that it will only ever be speculation, but I do feel truly sorry for him, and so very grateful that I've not been in a situation that dire.

#17 dirac

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 11:22 AM

It was just a snippet. Makarova was in red. Which ballet was that?


Looked like Other Dances to me, but I’m not sure.

I agree with Natalia that the program was heavily weighted in favor of Broadway -- ballet was made to seem a sideline for Robbins.


I thought the emphasis was on Broadway, but I also thought that was appropriate and not an intentional or unintentional snub to ballet. Robbins’ influence on Broadway as director, choreographer, and show doctor has few parallels, and by all accounts it was there that his genius in its best aspects really shone. I don’t think that’s always true of his work in ballet, distinguished as it is and unusual as Robbins was among Broadway dancemakers in his ability to make the transition successfully.

The balance was also redressed in a visual sense, because there are very few surviving films of Robbins’ work in the theatre but his ballet career is better documented. I liked that many of the dance clips were extended, as with the Balanchine documentary from awhile ago, so you could get a real sense of the work you were watching even if you hadn’t seen it before.

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.


The gay thing is mostly a red herring in Robbins’ case, IMO. I don’t doubt he was anxious about it, but talk of homosexuality, however widespread, wouldn’t have kept him off the Sullivan show and out of movie work. His Communist affiliations would and did, however, and that was the key.

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).


Yes, back then I thought of him as Palmer Courtland and as the choreographer he played in The Turning Point. :wink:

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.


HUAC trained its guns on Hollywood and television because that’s where the publicity was. Robbins and the other friendly witnesses weren’t turning in spies. They were offering up fellow show folk who’d once had the poor judgment to regard them as trusted colleagues and friends. It wasn’t the crime of the century by any means, of course, but however you shade the matter it was not a nice thing to do.

so very grateful that I've not been in a situation that dire.


I'll say. Very few generations have to confront one of those do-or-die dilemmas that follow you around for the rest of your life no matter what you do.

Peter Martins had some good things to say about the differences between rehearsing for Balanchine and rehearsing for Robbins.

Wonderful show, all around. Write PBS and tell them you want more, everybody.

#18 papeetepatrick

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 11:34 AM

HUAC trained its guns on Hollywood and television because that’s where the publicity was. Robbins and the other friendly witnesses weren’t turning in spies. They were offering up fellow show folk who’d once had the poor judgment to regard them as trusted colleagues and friends. It wasn’t the crime of the century by any means, of course, but however you shade the matter it was not a nice thing to do.


Agree with this, and of course in HUAC they weren't turning in spies. I didn't say it quite right, but Powers's book (going to go find the title) did give the right perspective on viewing McCarthism, which is important if one wants the facts--in that the object really was there. From that book, I was surprised to find that many more of the CIA's operations were failures than I would have thought--only recently has it become obvious that they are far from omnipotent, but I used to think they could do anything, find anybody, etc. Also mentioned this because HUAC is often confused with McCarthy, although there may be nobody here who thinks they're the same. Had in common 'red-scare' and 1950s, but distinct. Of course, McCarthy's ineptitude led to his censure.

Agree also it's not at all 'a nice thing to do', but can see why it must be terrifying to be in those positions when you haven't been up against super-powerful Govt. authority. Every time I think of Monica Lewinsky being taped by Linda Tripp and G-men coming around, you get that sense of being a mouse in the face of immense armour, and obviously that's what happened to Robbins. Probably some of the 'friendly witnesses' actually believed they were doing the right thing, but all this makes clear Robbins never forgave himself for what he had done.

Edited to add: 'Intelligence Wars' is the name of this book, and one finds things like the British Intelligence Services (SIS) having made the greater intelligence coups in WWII, things like that. From 2002, so goes through 9/11 up to buildup of Iraq War. I know we discussed this before on the Reading thread.

#19 Natalia

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 11:37 AM

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

..... Makarova and Baryshnikov were dancing in practice wear. It was just a snippet. Makarova was in red. Which ballet was that?
.


Ah, that was Other Dances.

#20 printscess

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 11:45 AM

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.)


Ha, ha, my parents had no choice in the matter. We were at my parents friend's house who were also very left of center. There were more kids than parents and we won. Doing the right thing, a vote was taken. How democratic!!! They had to live by that vote. Otherwise what kind of message would they have sent us?

#21 Jack Reed

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 03:56 PM

To answer sandik's question and to give a little credit where it is due, Heather Watts's partner in the Cage clip was Bart Cook; one of the few, or maybe the only, on-screen credit appeared briefly at the beginning of it.

When I posted last night, I hadn't realized there were so few dancer credits in this program. I saw all those credits rolling up at the end and assumed without being able to read them (not easy in standard-definition video while they're still scrolling) that performers were among them, but no, as I'm finding out today. So now I feel the program is remiss, in that regard. (Two credit rolls, Natalia? Where's the second one? Granted, there was a lot of that, and still too few dancer credits IMO.)

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.


Wouldn't we all! I wouldn't be surprised if rg chimes in here soon with extensive video source attributions, but in the meantime, I don't know about the Cage clip, but the Faun clip soon following IIRC is from a 1955 CBC program (be proud, Eric!), and the whole performance is available on a VAI DVD, number 4377. Highly recommended! (Everybody remember to click on the Amazon banner above now?)

By the way, at the end of the broadcast here there was a voice announcement to "Stay tuned for more Jerome Robbins" but the "American Masters" program was actually followed by "The Nightly Business Report". Did anyone else see additional Robbins material somewhere?

#22 bart

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 04:31 PM

It was just a snippet. Makarova was in red. Which ballet was that?


Looked like Other Dances to me, but I’m not sure.

Thanks, dirac. And thanks, Natalia, too!. I've never seen it. Bkut of course it was composed for Makarova and Baryshnikov. A quick check to the Jowett biography shows that "Robbins loved Makarova's dancing and often went to see her perform with American Ballet Theater. He also found her extremely alluring."

The gay thing is mostly a red herring in Robbins’ case, IMO. I don’t doubt he was anxious about it, but talk of homosexuality, however widespread, wouldn’t have kept him off the Sullivan show and out of movie work. His Communist affiliations would and did, however, and that was the key.

Weighing these two things on a scale, you are certainly right. But I think there was a powerful linkage between Communism and a variety of what were seen as "deviancies" in those days. And homosexuality was "deviancy" -- AND disease -- number one. It was invisible outside certain sub-communities (like Broadway) precisely because people were so terrified about the consequences of making it public, or even giving anyone the ammuniction. Blackmail was not unknown.

Sandik, I don't recall have heard or followed any of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings. I don't believe they were broadcast or televised; a number were rather secret. It was the confessions that were filmed.

Like an awful lot of kids I grew up hearing both HUAC (House of Representativaes) and McCarthy (Senate) discussed and argued by the adults in my family. My own parents were concerned about the civil liberties issuses and not prone to be steamrolled by charges of "Communism" (or "Godless Communism," as it was often described). However, a beloved uncle and aunt were among those who considered Communism inexcusably "un-American." This led to a temporary break in our extended family. (Though of course none of us had ever actually met an admitted Communist, let alone an admitted homosexual. :o :o )

#23 carbro

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 04:48 PM

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.

Watermill? NYCB did revive it last spring for its Robbins Festival. Nikolaj Hubbe, who had officially retired from NYCB, returned to recreate the role. I hope it was filmed.

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.

As Natalia pointed out, that was Other Dances. There was a documentary shown many years ago that showed Robbins at work choreographing with Makarova and Baryshnikov and the ballet in full. Don't know if there's a video of it, but somewhere (New York Public Library?) it's there for the viewing. The documentary also gives the same treatment to Martins' Calcium Night Light. A flash of memory says it may have been titled "Two Duets."

#24 bart

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 04:55 PM

I wish they'd gotten Villella to talk about Windmill, which is ignored except for a few stills.

Watermill?

Carbro, you're right. I've made this mistake on Ballet Talk before. I wish I understood my mental block about this name. :o :o

#25 dirac

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 05:00 PM

Weighing these two things on a scale, you are certainly right. But I think there was a powerful linkage between Communism and a variety of what were seen as "deviancies" in those days. And homosexuality was "deviancy" -- AND disease -- number one.


Communism was linked to a lot of things in those days, heaven knows. And, as I said, I’m sure Robbins felt vulnerable where his sexuality was concerned. But I doubt those fears were the final motivation behind his testimony. His career in the theatre would have continued to flourish as an unfriendly witness, but any immediate future in Hollywood would have been kaput, and he had every expectation at that time of a fine career there. Of course, as it turned out he didn’t, but Robbins had no way of knowing that at the time. To say that is not to minimize the stigma of being gay in that era. (Arthur Laurents is gay and he’s made it pretty clear what he thinks. But he was less conflicted in his sexuality than Robbins, too.)

By the way, at the end of the broadcast here there was a voice announcement to "Stay tuned for more Jerome Robbins" but the "American Masters" program was actually followed by "The Nightly Business Report". Did anyone else see additional Robbins material somewhere?


Nope, not in my area, but I don’t recall hearing the ‘stay tuned’ part either, although I might simply have missed it.

I really enjoyed that Martins anecdote about Balanchine flipping his lid. Sounds like Robbins had it coming, though. :o

#26 EricMontreal22

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 05:43 PM

I have to say, I see all the points here, but I'm in agreement with dirac. This was a documentary aimed largely at the uninitiated--I believe--and West Side Story and Fiddler are the two works that Robbins is best known for. Maybe it was because I love Broadway about as much as I love ballet that it didn't bother me--I was actually impressed and surprised with how much about ballet *was* covered. Certainly I hadn't seen a huge majority of those clips--whereas I had seen pretty much all of the Broadway clips many times and was disappointed in them (the Ed Sullivan performances of Cool and Maria are easy to find commercially and online, absolutely *nothing* from the stage production of Fiddler was shown though clips exist, very little from Gypsy focusing more on the TV movie version which was supervised by Robbins at least, unlike the Fiddler movie, etc).

I guess my point is that someone watching it with a huge love and knowledge only of his Broadway work would have probably been as disappointed as Natalia and others eeem about the treatment of ballet--we learned no new insights at all, many of his more interesting and less successful shows like Billion Dollar Baby were hardly even mentioned (O would love to know where the footage of the Max Sennett ballet in High Button Shoes was from!) and virtually no new footage. To me, as a fan of both (but, I admit, I'm someone who knows much more about Broadway when it comes to Robbisn than his ballet work, something I hope to rectify soon), I felt they were balanced well. I wish the documentary could have been twice as long and we could have really gone in depth with his works, but... For what it was I felt it did a better than expected job. (Certainly, footage wise, we got about as much ballet as Broadway)

Jack, thanks so much for the info on Faun! It's definetly next on my ballet DVD wish list. I always forget that there was a time when the CBC was very good at recording dance... Is the performance of Fancy Free they showed with Baryhnikov available anywhere? The original footage (shot from the wings?) of that ballet was fantastic even in its conditon--I was surprise dnone of the footage shot of the original On the Town that pops up in a lot of Broadway biopgraphies was used, even if fleetingly.

Oh and they said the same thing on our, Seattle, PBS "Stay tuned for more Jerome Robbins". It was just the end credits, however.

#27 canbelto

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 05:54 PM

I too really enjoyed the story of Balanchine losing it at Robbins. It sounded like a very funny moment. "All you do is COMPLAIN COMPLAIN COMPLAIN .." :o

I also liked seeing some of the lesser known dancers being interviewed, like Maria Calegari and Bart Cook. But as always it's amazing how beautiful and elegant former dancers remain long after retirement isn't it?

As for Robbins testifying for the HUAC, my grandfather was once in a position where in order to further his career he needed to do turn in friends and random innocent people. Not in the U.S., but in another country, another regime, but the point is he refused to cooperate at a great cost to him personally and professionally. So I admit I have very little sympathy for Robbins in this regard. I'm not condemning him as a bad person, but the documentary i thought almost made us feel like we were supposed to pity him for being "forced" to testify. It's true that Ed Sullivan's actions were disgusting, but Robbins not only testified, he gave names, which he did not have to do. Whatever happened to pleading the fifth? So on this, no, i don't feel sorry for him.

I thought overall this was a very good documentary, and gave us a real feel for how Robbins was as a person and choreographer. I would have liked to see more dancing clips but isn't that always the case?

#28 kfw

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 06:21 PM

By the way, at the end of the broadcast here there was a voice announcement to "Stay tuned for more Jerome Robbins" but the "American Masters" program was actually followed by "The Nightly Business Report". Did anyone else see additional Robbins material somewhere?

All I saw was the credits rolling by, but there is an interview with the show's producer and director, Judy Kinberg, here.

Robbins was a handful and a half from a producing point of view. We made three DANCE IN AMERICA programs with him, including the only complete recording to date of the much-loved Fancy Free and the beautiful Other Dances, with Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was demanding, unsympathetic to our problems, funny, scathingly honest, told great stories, and had the best eye of anyone with whom I’ve worked. And there was some pretty stiff competition there. The entire time we were making the first program with him, it was often so painful that I promised myself I would never work with him again. And then I did.

I expected much more Broadway than ballet and was pleasantly surprised at how much ballet we did get. There were also Balanchine and L'Clerq photos I'd never seen before, and it's always such a pleasure to see how former dancers look like today (good!).

Re: Windmill/Watermill. Thanks for the laugh, Bart.

#29 4mrdncr

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 09:00 PM

As Natalia pointed out, that was Other Dances. There was a documentary shown many years ago that showed Robbins at work choreographing with Makarova and Baryshnikov and the ballet in full. Don't know if there's a video of it, but somewhere (New York Public Library?) it's there for the viewing. The documentary also gives the same treatment to Martins' Calcium Night Light. A flash of memory says it may have been titled "Two Duets."


Baryshnikov and Markarova in "Other Dances" and Martin's "Calcium Night Light" was either a "Dance in America" or "Live from Lincoln Center" program because I saw the original broadcast on PBS. Whether PBS still owns the rights to re-release it (dvd or otherwise) is always a matter for the lawyers and funders to decide--unfortunately. Later, I saw ABT do "Other Dances" in the '80's, and then not again until 2007 at a BB gala; at which time, I was astonished to see how much Misha and Natasha lived in those steps, no matter who danced them. And that is brilliant choreography, and a timeless gift to the dancers the work is set on. (I think I did a post about this on BT at the time.)

#30 4mrdncr

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 09:16 PM

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. :o


There are several regulations for credits (opening and closing) and underwriters required by the unions, guilds, broadcasters etc.. They indicate which credits are necessary, their order, and ultimately how they're presented. (For instance, PBS requires them to be over moving video unless it's a split screen--the better to keep people watching to the end and into the next program promo.) So I understand the long list, and the necessity of that list. Especially now, as I discover that rounding up all those funders is much more difficult when you are independent and not under the aegis of a series or station production team. Thanks so much bart for thinking of me.


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