Jerome Robbins was an American theater producer and dance choreographer best known for his work in Broadway Theater and ballet/dance. A multi-faceted individual, his work ranged from classical ballet to contemporary musical theater, and he also occasionally directed films and television programs. Born into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants that had close connections to vaudeville performers and theater owners, young Jerome was exposed to show business from an early age. He excelled at music, dancing, and theatrics, and was naturally inclined towards artistic pursuits as a youngster. After graduating from high school he began studying chemistry at New York University (NYU) but was forced to drop out after a year due to financial difficulties at home. This issue, however, proved to be a boon in disguise as he could now immerse himself fully in his true passion—dance. He learned ballet, modern dance, Spanish dance, folk dance, and dance composition from some of the best known dance teachers of his time. He began his career as a dancer in Broadway shows before venturing into choreography as well. Following a successful Broadway career over the course of which he earned much respect and acclaim, he entered movies by recreating his stage dances in their film adaptations. During his later years, he served as co-artistic director of New York City Ballet along with Peter Martins.
Childhood & Early Life
Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz was born on October 11, 1918, in New York City, USA, to Harry Rabinowitz and his wife Lena Rips. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who had many show business connections, including vaudeville performers and theater owners. He had one sibling.
He displayed an early interest in music, dancing, and theatrics as a school student. After completing his primary education from schools in Weehawken, he moved to Woodrow Wilson High School from where he graduated in 1935.
He began studying chemistry at New York University (NYU) in late 1935. America at that time was reeling under the effects of the Great Depression and his family could no longer afford to fund his education, forcing him to drop out.
Leaving college, however, gave him the opportunity to further his interest in dance. He enrolled at the New Dance League and learned ballet, modern dance, Spanish dance, and folk dance from the likes of Ella Daganova, Antony Tudor, Helen Veola, and Yeichi Nimura. He also studied dance composition with Bessie Schonberg.
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By the time he embarked into a professional career Jerome Rabinowitz had dropped his Jewish-sounding surname and adopted “Robbins” instead. He began dancing and choreographing at Tamiment, a progressive-movement resort in Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains in 1937. Many other emerging stars like Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, and Carol Channing also performed at the resort.
He soon started dancing in Broadway productions such as ‘Great Lady’, ‘The Straw Hat Revue’, and ‘Keep Off the Grass’. During the late 1930s he also choreographed many dramatic pieces dealing with controversial themes related to racism, war, and lynching.
Jerome Robbins joined the recently-formed Ballet Theatre in 1940. Talented and eager to learn, he quickly advanced from the corps de ballet to solo roles as the Young Man in Agnes De Mille’s ‘Three Virgins and a Devil’, Hermes in ‘Helen of Troy’, and the tragic puppet in ‘Petroushka’.
In the early 1940s, he worked with the hitherto unknown composer Leonard Bernstein to create ‘Fancy Free’, his first dance for a ballet company. The ballet, which was about sailors, made its debut on April 22, 1944. It proved to be a great success and established his reputation as a choreographer.
He enjoyed considerable fame and popularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He continued creating dances for the Ballet Theatre, conceiving and choreographing both musicals and ballets.
He created the dance sequences in Rodgers and Hammerstein's ‘The King and I’ in 1951 and his techniques went on to gain worldwide acclaim. That same year, he also created ‘The Cage’ for the New York City Ballet. During the decade he also performed show doctoring on the musicals ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ (1951), ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1952), and ‘Wonderful Town’ (1953).
Jerome Robbins achieved unprecedented success in 1957 when he conceived and choreographed the musical ‘West Side Story’, which was inspired by William Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’. A critical as well as commercial success, it ran for 732 performances before going on tour and was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical in 1957.
The musical ‘West Side Story’ was so successful that it was made into a movie version in 1961 which Robbins directed with Robert Wise. The movie became a resounding success and went on to win ten Academy Awards in the spring of 1962.
Robbins also had the reputation of being a show doctor. He helped to saved ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ (1962) and ‘Funny Girl’ (1964), both of which were floundering when he took over their direction. He was able to turn both the troubled productions into successes.
He remained as productive as ever in the 1970s and 1980s. He choreographed and directed stage productions for both the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet, and became ballet master of the latter in 1972. He worked mostly in classical dance in the 1970s.
He became increasingly active on the small screen in the 1980s and appeared on NBC’s ‘Live From Studio 8H: An Evening of Jerome Robbins' Ballets’ with members of the New York City Ballet. His choreography was also aired on PBS in a 1986 installment of ‘Dance in America’.
Jerome Robbins earned considerable acclaim for the musical ‘West Side Story’ (1957) which he directed and choreographed. The musical explored a love story that blossoms amidst the rivalry between two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. It was an immediate success and catapulted Robbins to heights of stardom.
Along with Robert Wise, he directed the film version of ‘West Side Story’ in 1961 which too went on to become a huge success. It received high praise from the critics and was also a big hit at the box office. It was the second highest grossing film of the year in the United States and won ten Academy Awards.
Awards & Achievements
Jerome Robbins shared the Academy Award for Best Director with Robert Wise for the film version of ‘West Side Story’ (1961). The same year, he was honored with a special award for his choreographic achievements on film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
He was also the recipient of five Tony Awards including Tony Award for Best Choreography for the musical ‘West Side Story’ in 1957 and Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, and Best Choreography for ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (1964).
Personal Life & Legacy
Jerome Robbins was bisexual. He was once in a relationship with Montgomery Clift. He also had a close friendship with ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq.
He had a bicycle accident in 1990 which weakened his health. His health further declined following a heart-valve surgery in 1994 and he began showing signs of a form of Parkinson's disease in 1996. He suffered a stroke in 1998 and died in New York on July 29, 1998.