To celebrate the legacy of the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, the co-founding choreographer of New York City Ballet, the company will be performing 20 of his ballets this season. But Robbins was perhaps just as well known for his Broadway work. In order to commemorate his achievement in that realm during the centennial year of his birth, the company has commissioned a new work from the British-born, Tony-winning Broadway director and choreographer Warren Carlyle, currently represented on Broadway by Hello, Dolly! and who has a dozen other Broadway shows to his credit. Here Carlyle discusses the process of creating this new work, which includes excerpts from eight of the shows Robbins worked on for Broadway.
Has Jerome Robbins been a major lodestar in your career?
I knew of him growing up, but because my training was classical I was only aware of the ballet—although I was always aware, of course, of West Side Story. Really I moved to America partly because I wanted to be in the world where he had been, the world of Broadway. I’ve looked up at him for a long time, as a dancer, director, choreographer. Through each phase of my career I find myself looking up at him. I am so eager to celebrate him.
As you’ve been in the process of re-creating his choreography, have you gained any fresh insights into his particular gifts?
I think he found moments in time and captured them. He took what was happening on the streets of New York in the ‘40s and put that onstage in On the Town. He captured a moment in history with West Side Story. With Fiddler on the Roof he took the real life of a particular culture and put that real life onstage. He had a knack for it. He was somehow able to capture what was happening in the world and theatricalize it and make it dance, which is still unattainable for us mortals. For me that’s what’s really powerful about him.
Also, in Jerry’s work he has a great way of capturing conflict, which makes good theater. Theater comes most alive often not when things are going well, but when things are going badly.
What do you think is the greatest challenge in creating this kind of work, which combines choreography from shows spanning so many years and such different worlds?
I think it’s like curating a great exhibit. It’s finding the right order to hang these works of art, and walking the audience through it. Certainly this is not a dusty old exhibit. I’m asking the audience to look at these from a different point of view. In the number “America” from West Side Story, as traditionally performed there are sung sections, then dance sections, but because I was eager to just examine his dance I took out the sung sections. You now have 90 seconds of powerhouse choreography and dance. That’s a way of looking at something we know and doing it in a new way.
The same thing with the Fiddler on the Roof wedding dance. I’ve stripped away all the dressing. Distilled it into its purest elements and forms. Just looking at beautiful lines and shapes and the rhythms. There’s nothing to distract you from the purity of his choreography. Fiddler is a really good example of my mission to clear away all the packaging around the choreography. Because it’s on this company at this time, it’s more suited to this approach.
These dancers are constantly dancing Robbins’ works, but the dances you are working on with them rely on different dance idioms. How difficult do you find it is for the dancers to adapt to less classically inclined choreography?
It took a day! I would ask, how do you do this? How quick do you learn? Do you learn with counts? With calling out of the steps? Dance is a language all of its own. You don’t need that many words. Agnes de Mille has a great quote about how you should show rather than tell, and that’s something that I prefer. I speak less and dance more. On Broadway in some sense everything is a compromise: a dancer has to sing, a singer has to dance, an actor has to do both. With these dancers I had the chance to avoid any compromise in terms of executing the steps.
And the truth is the language between Broadway and ballet is not that different in Robbins’ works. His vocabulary melds both. It’s really something that he did almost uniquely. I don’t know if there was another choreographer who has done it at that level.
What has the response been from the dancers—excitement? Nervousness?
They love it. They are a hungry group. They are constantly learning new works. Just look at last spring’s season: 42 ballets by 21 choreographers. They soak it up so quickly; their brains are fast; their bodies are nimble. I’ve been having fun with them and I hope they have been having fun with me.
Do you think these dancers and their technique brings anything new to the dances, adds any new dimensions?
I do think there’s great beauty in what Jerry did and I think the purity of line and the strength of technique in this particular company is revealing things in the Broadway work that I had not previously been aware of. “All I Need Is the Girl” [from Gypsy] is an example. Here we are using the lyrics, but we do this dance break, and you discover these beautiful lines that I would have never become aware of. And because these dancers are familiar with Robbins, they are familiar with his style.
Robbins was famous for the exacting nature of his work. Do you find yourself daunted by the prospect of re-creating the work of an artist who was so fiercely protective of the integrity of it?
I think I had to let go of that in order to be a creative person. I have to trust the Robbins Foundation to say if I’ve gone too far. I’m making an evening for today, not for another time in history. I have to look at it honestly through the lens of today, 2018. Does that work today? Is that good today? I’m trying not to be precious with it. I’m celebrating and looking up at it but, I am creating an exhibition of his work for an audience today.
Take a minute to describe the process of re-creating these dances. Do you work from video? Are the steps notated somewhere? Are there members of the Robbins Foundation helping you with the work?
The Robbins Foundation has an amazing amount of video. Of course I was interested in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway because he was able to take another pass at things. He was able to select and distill. He chose his greatest hits. So I was very aware of his previous playlist. He did it perfectly, so I did not want to re-create that. I wanted to take things we still know and love and present then in a newly illuminating way, I hope. I had to set Jerome Robbins’ Broadway aside and make my own decisions. It has to be personal. It is me standing up saying, this is genius, I can’t wait to show you this. This is why I think it’s an outstanding piece of work all these years later.
In that show, Robbins was mainly working with Broadway performers. As Broadway performers, many were also trained singers. That’s obviously not the case here. Will there be extensive singing included here?
I think the important thing was figuring out how to best express his work. His work is best expressed through the dancer. There is a little bit of singing in here. But the vocal is in second place to the dance. I am not driving a story with song or dialogue. I am driving an evening with his many talents, but the choreography is what I am focused on. Occasionally I use song to get us into the world, to conjure the imagination of Jerry. I open it with an unexpected image—a song.
I didn’t want to make a PBS special. I didn’t want to make a history lesson. I am much more interested in dynamics and contrast. I go from ten sailors in On the Town to Tulsa and Louise in Gypsy, to ten couples in West Side Story in the “Dance at the Gym.” I love being able to play with scale, like he did, going from a sharp focus to a stage filled with life.
Some people will be surprised to find a selection from Funny Girl included, although he worked on and off on that show. What was behind that decision?
I wanted to do something unexpected. Because it’s nice to discover some things in an evening. I hope that “The Music That Makes Me Dance” from Funny Girl will be a beautiful surprise. His choreography is the reason we are in this room. He makes us dance. I’ve made a suite of three of his pas de deux set to the music from that song. It’s me saying, “You are the one that made us dance.”
Charles Isherwood has been writing about theater, as well as ballet and other art forms, for more than 20 years. His theater reviews can currently be accessed at Broadway.news