A compact and incisive portrait of the great dancer and choreographer.
In 2015, after Lesser (You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, 2017, etc.) saw one of Robbins’ (1918-1998) final works, The Goldberg Variations, she sat “in a state of stunned amazement.” She welcomed the offer to write a biography for the publisher’s Jewish Lives series because she sees him as a “genius worth championing.” The author begins with Robbins as perhaps “the most hated man on Broadway.” Actors and dancers famously feared his “vicious outbursts” and “cruel perfectionism.” Others loved him deeply. He was always “high-strung and tormented,” according to one of his rehearsal pianists, and conflicted about his skills, homosexuality, and Jewish roots. Born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz—he changed his name at the urging of a ballet teacher—to a “rarely affectionate” father and “forceful” mother, he possessed perfect pitch and an excellent sense of rhythm. He could “move naturally and expressively.” A stint at Camp Tamiment in the Catskills confirmed his first love, choreography. Throughout, Lesser focuses on Robbins as a “narrative artist,” perhaps one of the century’s “most powerful exemplars.” George Balanchine cast him in a musical in 1938, and Robbins soon began working with Leonard Bernstein. In 1951, he joined up with Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II on The King and I and developed a new style of dance, a “fusion between Eastern and Western modes.” A low point in his career came in 1953, when he named names for the House Un-American Activities Committee, something he later deeply regretted. The hits kept coming: Peter Pan, an “amazing achievement,” Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, and, with now close friend Bernstein, West Side Story, where he worked with a young Stephen Sondheim, who called Robbins the “only genius I’ve ever met.” As Lesser concludes, his “influence lives on even where his name may not.”
A breezy and inviting biography from a self-described “zealot.”