Jerome Robbins was a jerk. He is also highly regarded as a creative genius and one of the top choreographers from ballet to Broadway of the 20th century. Having choreographed huge hits like West Side Story, On the Town and Fiddler on The Roof, it is hard to argue with his five Tony and two Academy Awards. Robbins has had a lasting impression on the dance world. However, he has still yet to escape the perception of being an awful and cold-hearted man to dance for.
Robbins was a perfectionist. He didn’t just correct you; he demolished you. He would grind you up and acts like a dictator on set, where dancers couldn’t move a muscle or talk to someone else in the cast (inside and outside rehearsal) unless he said so. There are stories of him changing counts and choreography on opening night performances... while standing in the curtains... as the orchestra began to play. Mel Tomlinson, a former soloist for the New York City Ballet, had this to say about working with the man: “If I go to hell, I will not be afraid of the devil. Because I have worked with Jerome Robbins.”
Most don’t know that Robbins was FIRED from working on West Side Story and banned from the set. Robbins demanded retakes and retakes of scenes, asking dancers to do precisely what they had just done but on the other foot for the entire next take. The film went way beyond its original budget and schedule due to his demands. Robbins forced star Natalie Wood to practice 16 hours a day. Some dancers caught pneumonia from continuous outdoor takes, while others injured themselves from the repeated practice on real street payment. Although he was fired from the movie, he did return for some editing and the Academy Awards (of course) as he was still credited as a co-director.
Through dance lore, we are presented with many stories of Robbin’s fear of failure and need for perfectionism which created many harsh and dangerous situation for his dancers. However, my favourite story is based in karma for the choreographer. Maybe it's best to treat your dancers with respect for your own safety?
The story of Jerome Robbins and the Orchestra Pit! Although this story has been repeated for many years, the details get a little foggy. It has been attributed to many different shows that Robbin has worked on; however, many dancers attest to its authenticity.
Robbins was onstage during a rehearsal, giving corrections to the dancers in his typical drill sergeant and condescending way. While doing so, he was slowly, slowly walking backwards.
The dancers stood on stage frozen, as he kept talking and talking and walking closer and closer to the edge of the orchestra pit. “Watch it” “Stop” “Look behind you,” said none of the dancers as he fell over the edge! The drums stopped his fall. No one even ran to his rescue for a few minutes, they all just stood in silence.
Were dancers too intimidated to interrupt him while giving corrections? Did they want him to fall into the pit? Frozen in time, unsure what to do? Performers present at the time describe all of these different reactions. However, my favourite reason given - 'if no one says a word, they couldn’t fire us all.'
Years later, Robbins was rehearsing for Jerome Robbin’s Broadway, when a dancer fell into the pit. and many dancers attest to Robbins saying “That happened to me once.”
Lawrence, Greg. Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins. Berkeley, 2002.
Fishko, Sara. “The Real-Life Drama Behind 'West Side Story'.” NPR, NPR, 7 Jan. 2009, www.npr.org/2011/02/24/9727471...
Robert Wise on “West Side Story”, YouTube, 8 Sept. 2012, youtu.be/sd_Ghsy1nps.