Book Review:

Dance with Demons

by Joseph B. Rosenberg
Dance with Demons

by Greg Lawrence
G.P. Putnam's Sons 2001
Under duress because of his sexuality, Robbins cooperated with HUAC and "named names." His incredible work transcends this stain.

There are two trenchant comments on the life of master choreographer Jerome Robbins, formerly Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz—one by Slim Hayward,"I would trust him to the end of the earth"; the other by Zero Mostel, "I let him come into my dressing room, but I will tell you something, I never shook his hand." Dancer, choreographer, director, protégé, mentor, Communist, namer of names, lover, Jew, bisexual, mensch—Mr. Lawrence captures all the different and interlocking roles Robbins played in his life.

The measure of a life to me is how it was conducted. As portrayed in this book, Mr. Robbins lived a life full of creativity and integrity; a life demonized by where he came from and what he did that is shared with the reader in 536 pages of highly readable painstaking prose. Coming from Weehawken, New Jersey, a town of unrelenting shabbiness (even uglier than neighboring Hoboken, where I spent my early years), Robbins at first was ashamed of his lower middle class Jewish background as he made his way as a dancer in the late 1930's. He fell in with the crowd that, with Rodgers and Hammerstein, redefined American musical theatre as, together with Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Robbins created "On the Town," an expansion of Robbins' ballet, "Fancy Free."

Like many in the arts, Robbins joined the Communist Party, not so much for its politics but for a chance to meet and mingle. From "On the Town," Robbins expanded into a career that led him into doing the dances of such shows as "Bells Are Ringing," "Gypsy," "The King and I" and his ultimate creation, "West Side Story." Robbins won an Oscar for his direction of the film based on his play, but was fired during the film production. A tart-tongued perfectionist, Robbins was never involved with Hollywood again, and instead became involved with the New York City Ballet and its head George Balanchine. In this company he assisted the Russian master and created his own ballets, eventually becoming co-director when Balanchine passed.

A pivotal moment in Robbins' private life came in 1953, when he was a favorable witness to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Under duress because of his sexuality, he named names in an hour of testimony and incurred the wrath of people like Zero Mostel, who did not and were blacklisted. Like Elia Kazan and others who cooperated with the witch hunters, Robbins moved on with his life. He moved on again when many of his friends and lovers died of AIDS, and, towards the end of his life, embraced his Jewish roots and his family.

I have three quibbles with the book; one, it does not list in an appendix all the plays, ballets, TV productions and movies Robbins had a role in; two, it follows the current trend of mentioning the names of every sexual and non-sexual friend Mr. Robbins ever had at the expense of explaining why his dance innovations were unique; and finally, the author talks about Robbins' verbal cruelty to his dancers/actors over and over again and never once tells us exactly what witty and penetrating things he said during these tirades.

Overall, it is an enjoyable book and a tribute to a man who led a life that was undaunted by his demons. The super-patriots and homo-phobes who tried to destroy Jerome Robbins' artistic life did not succeed. We will always have in our mind the striking way the Sharks and Jets portrayed hostility on stage and screen. The thought thugs of HUAC and their xenophobic successors on their best day could never create an image worthy of Jerome Robbins' ultimate scorn.

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This story was published on February 6, 2002.