Transcript:

Speaker I grew up in Tinseltown, in Hollywood.

Speaker I had a slew of Russian trainers, there was no Minsker, there was David Lee Sheen, there was Simonsen Meana and a couple of others. And so I kind of grew up doing television at a very early age and a little bit of film and then came to New York. And I had done a lot of eclectic things. Even then, I think I was 18 and I had done some, you know, symphonies by the sea and a lot of early television where he had to drive all the way up to the Hollywood sign. And so I was hoping to find out what New York theater was like. And how did you first encounter Joe? Well, through one of my teachers in New York, Nanette, this beautiful woman. And I was working with Danny Daniels in some concerts. And I remember Danny told me that Jerry had been to see one of the concerts and he was interested in me. You know, I didn't know what that meant.

Speaker And then one day in class, Nanette said to me, Have you been to audition for Jerry? I said, no, but I'm going to. So I think she called him and then they called me and they invited me to audition for Bally's USA. And what was your audition like?

Speaker Oh, it was with maybe 10 other people. And we had a class in the morning on the stage of the Broadway theater. And we we had lunch. They told us to come back and we learned a few pieces of some ballets. The concert was one of them. And then Jerry left and he told the Register, who was Tommy Abbot at that time, to teach some more and show me a particular part. At the end of the day, we were let go and we were told to come back tomorrow, which I did.

Speaker This went on for a week.

Speaker Nobody told me that Jerry auditioned for weeks at a time. And finally one day, I think Todd Bolinder was in there and he was going to do a ballet.

Speaker This was for the first Spoleto Festival.

Speaker And at the end of that day, we were told by the producer of the Spoleto Festival that they would hear from us meeting us. We would hear. And so I was so confused. I walked up to Jerry and said, excuse me, Mr. Robbins, but am I in?

Speaker And looked at me like I was crazy.

Speaker Yeah, that was so I hope that was your impression of Jerry.

Speaker Oh, like everyone else, he was he seemed very remote. And you had to kind of like, watch out, you know, do your best. But on the other hand, I was always able to talk to him. And I think that was one reason why I I did so many different things with him over a period of about 15 years.

Speaker Tell me what exactly you USA was sponsored.

Speaker Well, it was Manatee's festival.

Speaker You can go back to incorporate Bally's USA so that we know. All right.

Speaker Values USA was a company, the name of which we didn't know at first, and it was formed to be part of the first festival day doing Mondy in Spoleto, Italy.

Speaker And I believe that there was a man named Chandler Coles who was the company manager. And I believe there was some kind of backing that came from sponsors. But I'm not sure at that point who. And we we did some of the values. We were restaged for this particular music about the air.

Speaker I'm sorry. They're just kept going. Oh, OK.

Speaker Got the er the air conditioning duct tape to OK.

Speaker OK. OK, so you were telling me what is Ballies, what was Ballis USA?

Speaker Dallis USA was formed as part of the first Spoleto Festival in Italy, and I believe that it was it was conceived of as a sort of one shot deal. And we rehearsed in New York and they revived some of Jerry's already choreographed works from Ballet Theatre. Then the concert premiered. You do fun and something else that was I can't remember.

Speaker But then for that company, he choreographed some new works. And coming out of West Side Story, I think he had in mind a sort of jazz based or popular dance first piece. And so out of this came a score by a guy named Robert Prince and the ballet opus Jazz, New York Export opens jazz. And these became a foundation really for a company, because the the reaction to it was quite astonishing. And I think I don't think anybody really understood that this was going to be quite the explosion in Europe that it was. And so the next year happened and we had a State Department tour and the year after that, another one. And the the the works changed a little bit. There was a season or two on Broadway, and then it all kind of came to an end. We had a tour in the United States, which I think kind of fell flat. United States a little bit behind Europe in those days in terms of ballet and what they thought they wanted and what they reacted to. But I remember going to spooled up to two or three of the festivals, and it it was it was a life experience. You know, a lot of us were very young and we were doing these pieces that were grounded and a lot of social dances that we had grown up with most of us. And it seemed natural to us. And suddenly people wanted to see them. They wanted to talk to us. They you know, I remember Jerry had a villa that he had rented in Spillett, and this is kind of a big deal. And we used to go there and play childish games and, you know, hide and go seek and things like that.

Speaker Take you back a little bit. Okay, tell me describe the company to me a little bit in terms of its its training and performance quality. What's the company like as a dance company? Mm hmm.

Speaker The company was very unusual in that dancers came from a lot of different backgrounds, a lot of different training. I myself had been trained by Russian ballet teachers, but also I had grown up doing jazz. I had worked with Jack Cole and in films. And so that was kind of my background. And also I had I had kind of the beginnings of having bit of an acting career.

Speaker Other people were directly from ballet companies, two or three of them from American Ballet Theatre, which was then called Ballet Theatre, a couple from New York City Ballet and a couple from West Side Story, people like Jane Norman, who was a highly intuitive and very sensual dancer, but with a minimum of training, just just a natural, you know, so. Oh, and then added to this were a couple of, you know, stars. They were seniors and they were people who like Michael Morell and Musea. I've just forgotten her Kanigher lover, who had been associated with Jerry and a lot of different ways. Now, some of the dancers from Ballet Theatre, you have to look at and say, well, they did Broadway shows.

Speaker So they had a different kind of background than dancers from American Ballet Theatre today. Mostly it was I think you could use that word eclectic this coming, but it worked.

Speaker Tell me what what was the rehearsal period? The what the rehearsal period, you must before you went to Europe, you must have the company got together.

Speaker We had I think we had maybe two months of rehearsals after a very long audition period, which a lot of rehearsing got done. So a couple of months, we pretty much put together most of the repertoire. And I think I don't remember exactly, but I think that first year there were maybe two programs and there were two ballets that did double duty.

Speaker So it wasn't a lot of repertoire. But then when we got to Spoleto, I think we went in early June and again, we had the theater to rehearse in.

Speaker Giancarlo Minardi was giving Gerry everything he wanted and we were in very good company.

Speaker There were a lot of wonderful artists. There was Sandy called her that year and from the minority himself and the shots blocked his name, the American artist who did a couple of sets for us, and then Sean and also Saul Steinberg had done sets for us. So it it was a kind of experiment in a way, I think. And a lot of these people congregated just when we got to see Falletta and rehearsals went on. And, you know, all too soon there was an opening night and and it was a hit, you know, like they say, tell me about Jerry in rehearsal.

Speaker How what was he like as a choreographer? Sure, I'm OK.

Speaker Jerry in rehearsal was he was quixotic. You know, you couldn't quite tell from day to day how he was going to be. Sometimes he was wonderful. And when he was involved in the choreographic process, he was fully engaged. We were fully engaged. There was a rapport. There was a sense of understanding with very little instruction. There was a sense of your being a part of this wonderful creativity when it got to a certain point. And maybe he was he was a choreographer who liked to do several versions of things. And maybe there were two or three versions of something. When he finally settled on something, it was as if a page was turned and now it was the shining up process. It was like polishing the stone after the sculpture was excruciating, just excruciating, because you have to do things over and over and not necessarily of the piece, you know, small bits over and over, over multiple times. And it was a process that were the dancers down. I remember that two or three people really broke under this. There was a guy in Valleys USA who the first year in Spillett and we were working on a section of Opus Jazz where there are a lot of nice lights and things. He purposely kind of did himself damage because he was so frustrated, you know, and things like that would happen and then it would all come together. And the moment that I don't know, the other dancers, one moment I waited for was to be left alone on stage to do the work. And that was wonderful.

Speaker So you went ahead and you started to say before Jerry had a kind of feeling. So tell me a little bit about what it was like for this group of young people suddenly to be like, did Jerry introduce you to the art, the culture? Was he interested in what was around?

Speaker I think he was interested. We were introduced sort of by default, you know, as people came up and spoke with us. And Giancarlo Minardi was a very generous man. And he was I think he was looking out for us in a lot of ways, and he made sure that we had places to stay. There weren't many places at that time. A lot of us stayed in people's homes or one or two of the old fashioned kind of pensioners. And and then Jerry had this villa. And so he would play daddy. He, I think, was only about 40 at this time, but he would play daddy because we were quite a bit younger and he would invite us up and we'd have something to eat and we would play games. We do these kind of very. Convoluted hide and go seek kind of things, and we'd play the piano and sing, and sometimes we did cards and he he was essentially, you know, one of us, we were with him when you got back in rehearsals and things changed.

Speaker Tell me about all this jazz, opas, jazz.

Speaker Well, I think it was meant to be a concert version of something on the sort of West Side Story in that it was very formal and it had an introduction. It had a kind of improvisation section. It had a section that was very sinister in which a woman seems to be consumed by, you know, a bunch of guys. It had a beautiful, very tender and sultry duet and it had a theme, variation and fugue at the end, which brought together in a very formalistic way all of the the social forms, the rangey and the choucha and the mambo. And so it was a feast. It really was a feast and it was a joy to perform. We did it in sneakers, but we never thought about it like being anything except ballet. It was ballet. The sets were wonderful. The music, I think, was one of its weaker points. But it was it was a kind of a safety net for the structure of the ballet.

Speaker The duet was unusual for its time, right?

Speaker The duet duet was unusual for its I think it was I think it was sexually suggestive and it was it certainly could be interpreted, you know, as a very sultry and sensual piece. But beyond that, it was sometimes done. I did it with Johnny Jones, who was a black dancer, and that was unusual and provoked in the United States. A couple of incidents in in Europe. It was not seen as something provocative.

Speaker You know, what happened on.

Speaker This was much later, this is a few years later, and we had been invited to Florida and I know not why we were in Florida and we were doing something, I think, presented by the Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Speaker We were in a casino and already in Florida, most of the companies stayed in one hotel and the two black dancers were relegated to someplace else. Not nice. But I do remember in performance that when John and I did the duet, we heard hisses from the audience. I was never so motivated to stop, but we didn't know.

Speaker And can you tell me what year that was? Do you remember?

Speaker I think that was about nineteens. When did Kennedy die? That was the last four six sixty two, three, three. So it was that same year because the last time that company was together, we went to the White House and danced for Kennedy.

Speaker You danced at the White House. Did you also dance at Madison Square Garden, the birthday party at Madison Square Garden?

Speaker No, no. There's conflicting research about where you are now. It says at the White House, and I remember narrowly avoiding a chandelier. So they must have put up a kind of attorney.

Speaker Yes. They must have put up a podium, a stage or something like that.

Speaker OK, we're conflicting. You know, we're doing all of this research and inevitably some of it's wrong, as you know. Of course. Right. So, you know, it sends you off. And people's memories are wrong sometimes, too. Yeah. Why didn't just a little bit more about Opas Jazz? Because it seemed to be the kind of anchor piece of the company. Definitely. Oh, definitely.

Speaker So maybe you could talk a little bit about that, just say the name of the piece again and that it was however you want to say thank you. OK, and tell me, if you would, why do you think it's actually still performed. Now.

Speaker Well, yes, you're right, I think it's an it was an anchor piece for the company plays USA and. I think it was a very strong work, both in its form and in what the dancers brought to it. The dancers brought life experience to this work, and I'm not talking about bad acting or anything like that. They just brought a kind of energy to this work and it was it spilled out. And I think that it was an important piece of its time. It captured that element of angst. It captured the element that later was to come to fruition with civil rights and and all kinds of things it captured. I think the sense that movement can be sensual without being pornographic. And it had this kind of energy that maybe West Side Story as a as a musical piece had. So all of that very much of its time. And really, I think the dancers committed to this fusion of classical dance and social dance. Now, I'm not sure what its shelf life is now. I saw a recent production of it and I found it hard to watch. You had to see it as a period piece.

Speaker That's interesting, do you think that's because of the the choreography or the way it was danced?

Speaker I think the choreography was there, but I don't think it had the kind of understanding of its time that the dancers from that other time brought to it, not that they were better or, you know, it's just different.

Speaker OK, Jerry, was I curious by nature? And he embarked on an experiment, which I don't think it started as an experiment, but it became an experiment in which he choreographed a dance without music. You were involved. And so can you tell me about that? How did that come about and what was it?

Speaker OK, it's a ballet called Moves.

Speaker And the story is kind of fun story is that, yes, we started rehearsing it, thinking it was going to be something else. In fact, I believe it was Aaron Copeland who was writing a suite of waltzes, and Betty Wohlberg, the company pianist, had was sort of getting them, you know, every week there would be another little piece of music and she would play it and we would all listen and Jerry would listen.

Speaker And then one day he said, let's try something.

Speaker And we started this entrance in silence. And it comes with a line of people coming across the stage and then suddenly facing the audience and then coming forward and then making a gesture that almost could be construed as rude. And then another gesture that is acquiescing or bowing or something like that and then moving into some very measured dance. And it was it was fun. And it seemed as though at first, you know, we were saying, oh, well, we're doing this until the music, but that really wasn't it. I mean, Jerry had been thinking clearly for a long time about doing this. And because he had a lot of it already in his thoughts as he brought it out of us. And it also was a wonderful creative process because you really had to listen, you to listen and you had to feel a pulse. When we started the ballet, I was the first one out and behind in the wings I would snap for that's the only time anybody ever counted. The rest of it just floated. And there were many different variations on rhythm, some of them very complicated and again, very formalistic, you know, had had several sections to it with group work and duets and trios and all of them. All of them very much, I think, attributable to the stuff that you say that's of Robbins Valley, because there are always the implied relationships, you know, the twosomes, the threesomes, the solos, the changing, the people who meet and interact and leave and all of that.

Speaker I'm not sure that you explain clearly that actually it ended up that he choreographed in silence and stayed in silence. So if you could just sort of explain that. OK, tell me then, how did you all manage without counting to dance together?

Speaker Well, at the beginning of the ballet, there was a lot of percussive kind of footwork. So there was a sense of making these rhythms as you went along. But in this in the multiple sections, there weren't those things. So you really had to understand. It's the way I think musicians understand when they're playing together that there is a rhythmic mode that changes. So we were able to do a complete ballet in silence. And once we got going on it, there was no pretense that there was going to be music to this thing. And it became all the more exciting for that reason, you know, because you really had to work with your partner in a very tactile way, almost because it wasn't metered. When I said I was a little bit misleading, it wasn't like a four meter. And then, you know, moving to three-quarter time, there was nothing that straight ahead about it. It was metered in. The way that you make music while you're dancing in silence and everybody had to know what that music was about and we did.

Speaker Thank you. What were the other Families USA highlights for you?

Speaker We've talked about two of his jazz, and those are things that stand out in the concert.

Speaker Now, this wasn't just get started, OK? I always leave over here before I have to stop.

Speaker The ballet called the concert, which was not choreographed for Ballis USA. It came from the New York City Ballet. And Jerry had choreographed it on tanuki. Leclerc and Todd Bolinder, who actually was in our company at that point. It was it was a comedic ballet. I've never seen another ballet that has belly laughs. I mean, a formal ballet with the Lillith. And it was all to Chopin waltzes and mazurkas, beautiful music. And, you know, the absurdity of this ballet is that it was about the train of thought. So it was a crowd pleaser. It was a very good closure for the company. And we almost always closed without ballet. And part, what did you do to this part? No, I never did. I did. I did several things in it. I was the one who made a lot of, you know, there's a mistake was and one time Jerry shoved some glasses on my face before I was going out and stay. There happened to be my glasses, but I didn't wear them when I was on stage. And so I became known as the part. The woman with glasses was just a lot of fun to do.

Speaker Did you know Danny? No, I never met her. Now, tell me more about USA Today and what was the reception?

Speaker The company that first year was mainly in Italy. And I think we went to Trieste and several places in Italy. And the second year was was the the big tour. We went back to Spoleto, but we were under the auspices of the State Department and who are didn't like, oh my God, we went to France, we went to Barcelona, we went to Israel.

Speaker So the only time I was ever waiting in a hot dressing room to get on an air conditioned stage, we went to we went to Scotland after that and we had a plane crash, not with anybody being hurt, but we were in two small planes and one of them had the sets. And going from Israel to Edinburgh, one of the planes went down and we had to put down in London. When we got to Edinburgh, we were without sets. So kind of a wonderful thing happened in that there was one set piece by Ben. Sean left and we had no costumes. And so we did the first couple of performances in our rehearsal clothes. And if anything, I think it intensified that particular performance, you know, because we had been through this from there.

Speaker We went to London, we went to the World's Fair in Brussels, and we came back and we had a I think we had a week or two weeks on Broadway. And what was the reception in Europe like? The reception in Europe was without fail, really riotous. You know, people would stand up. I remember being in Berlin and hearing what is, I guess, traditional there, not only the clapping and meter, but the foot stamping and meter. And it went on until must have been for like ten minutes until they put down the fire curtain. A little alarming, but that that was the most extreme, but really everywhere. It was extraordinary.

Speaker So tell me, how how do you think the jury felt about representing his company to represent the United States?

Speaker He didn't talk very much about our being representative, but especially when we were on State Department tours. Of course, we had been briefed, but nevertheless, we knew that he felt very strongly that we were Americans, we were artists, and we were bringing something brand new in art. And I think he got great pleasure out of that. He was you know, he had a very shy side to it. And I remember a moment where we were, I think, in London and there was a big there was almost always a reception at the embassy or the diplomatic, you know, place. And we were having a dinner with multiple courses. He ordered something from the you know, that that sort of peculiar thing that the English do. They have a savory after the sweet and before the fruit, maybe before the fruit and afters. And he ordered that. And the waitress kind of said, oh, but Mr. Robbins, if she didn't know who he was, but she she said, oh, that's that's a savory. You don't eat that now. And he said, I'm the guest of honor. And I wanted but that was very rare because usually he was quite modest, you know.

Speaker Let's talk about a little bit more about Jerry in rehearsal. OK, what was he like in general in rehearsal with the dancers?

Speaker Um, he there was a kind of norm that was the businesslike thing. And let's get on with it and let's do the work and let's see what happens then. It could go a number of different ways. If there was difficulty, if dancers couldn't quite get what he wanted or if he didn't know what he wanted, he could get mean.

Speaker And I don't think he thought he was mean, that he could be very pushy and very insistent on doing something that maybe you were a little afraid to do.

Speaker I saw a dancer one time throw herself at a group of maybe 10 people who were standing like a wall. And in fact, it was a section of the concert that was going to be called the wall. And the idea was to, you know, this barrage of a person continuing to try to penetrate the wall and a lot happening. And I mean, how many times can you do that, you know, without hernias?

Speaker So there were there were there were sections when there were times when the irritation and frustration that he felt made him react not too well towards a person. But if you knew that and you sort of let it pass, it came and went. And there were times when the creative process was just so fulfilling and you were on the same wavelength and it was such a good conversation. And, you know, you came out the other end of it just feeling as though you were working in the best possible world and in the best possible way with the best possible person.

Speaker Right now, eventually.

Speaker You went to work with Jerry on a big project at American Ballet Theatre, correct?

Speaker Well, I went to work on the project, which was Lenos. So tell me about it. And I was I was actually doing something else at the time, so I kind of got pulled into it. He Jerry had been choreographing the first of many versions of that ballet Lenos on ABT dancers, where suddenly they had to go on tour. So he pulled in a few other people.

Speaker I remember Elliott was there and my brother in law, James Moore and me and a few other people and maybe a couple of ABT dancers and for some reason or another weren't on tour. And we we kept plowing ahead. And by the time they came back, he had asked me to do the role of the bride and we had maybe three or four versions of it. And by that time, I was actually in a Broadway play called The Devil, Zavaleta was working with Michael Gagliano's and I hadn't been at the rehearsal for quite a long time. And he had been, you know, working with another person. And the day that he wanted to show as much of the ballet as he had choreographed to Leonard Bernstein, who was going to be an actor.

Speaker I was asked to come back and I had to, like, get off from a matinee or something like that to go. And I'm not sure what the chronology is here, but I did do the opening performance and did it with the company for the first three or four years of the of the ballets.

Speaker You know, tell me what was unusual about my nose, about Lunas?

Speaker Well, first of all, it's it's a cantata as a musical cantata sung by a huge chorus and with only percussion, music, pianos and drums. And it was considered to be, I think, according to Mr. Balanchine, and choreographed. However, it had been choreographed by my early teacher, Bronislaw Anscar. I never had seen it. So I think it was it. I think it was a great challenge for Jerry to work on this. And it was another one of those things where the music just carried you along and working on it. In the beginning, when I started rehearsing it, I think I performed every single part, not just the bride, but sometimes the groom and sometimes you know, other people. That's the way Jerry worked. Sometimes parts were interchangeable. Later, when I concentrated on working on the bride, it was the opposite of the energy that surrounded me. It was the still point in the middle of this whirlwind of energy. And I rather liked it was a very it seems deceptively simple that wrong, but it's not. I enjoy doing it and particularly working very closely with Jerry a few times on that role.

Speaker How was the movement different from other ballets you danced?

Speaker Well, it it was. It's ballet, all of the steps are valid, but it's inflected with folk dance and a particular kind of folk dance, and I don't know how much Jerry really knew about that kind of folk dance when he started the ballet. I think he learned a lot as as he he went I mean, I just don't know whether he had done research and studied those folk forms. He told us that he deliberately didn't see Nijinsky's version. I think that was probably wise, you know, because hers was from the point of view of a Russian who had that that mythology in her background. Jerry did not talk about the roles as being particularly Jewish or of Jewish traditions, which, looking back on it, I find strange. But he certainly had it inside him to evoke. Those feelings about that culture and it was a culture that I don't know why, but I think he was conflicted about. He never spoke to you about. He did not talk about the peace in terms of the culture except in very broad strokes. You know, this is the this is the place where the mother, the two mothers lament. This is the place where the fathers come in and are proud of the son. And this is the place where the bride is brought forward in all her virginity. And this is the part where the friends, the married couple go in and warm the bridal bed, you know, but he he didn't he didn't talk in the way that, let's say, a director talks to actors to encourage you to find your character or something like that. He didn't do that at all. It was not his style. But you had to do it. You had to do it. You really had to go into it in a certain way in order to bring a certain kind of truism of validity to it. Now, not coming from a Jewish cultural background myself, I couldn't say, oh, of course, the lighting of the candles or the chorus, the women of the household, because I didn't know about that. So I had to pull it from other other places myself. And I think other people did as well.

Speaker So the only instruction he gave you was basically related to movement. Is that right?

Speaker Pretty much the the the movement was all important. And because it was synchronized to that devilish score and the counting of it, it was difficult. But beyond that, as I said, he would do sweeping statements. He would kind of paint that Byzantine picture, you know, and then later you got things that forgotten the name. Again, Oliver Smith had made those beautiful iconic drops. And you heard the chorus doing the music, you know, whereas before we had dealt with a rehearsal pianist and it was a great help. I don't I don't know if Jerry thought he was giving us the creative stuff that we needed, but I know that he withheld certain particular details about the Jewish culture. And as I say, I you know, I can guess that, you know, he he grew up in a house that was not terribly observant. And I think there was a kind of rejection of, you know, that part of his life and faith. And maybe he had, you know, experiences that we didn't know about that kept him from really divulging a lot.

Speaker What Stravinsky rounded on was who, Stravinsky?

Speaker No, no, I do recall that a couple of times. You know, there were scores that had metronome markings and things like that. And they say, oh, well, we can't make this slower, faster. But he did. And he worked. He worked pretty closely with Bernstein on the musical part of.

Speaker OK, before we leave us, is there anything else that you'd like to add about it?

Speaker Just that it was always a momentous experience performing that, Ali, and I think for everybody, for different reasons. You know, most of it, the men's parts were exhausting. But for me, it was the opposite. It was it was the ability to be that kind of still point and, you know, almost meditative. Spirit at the middle in the middle of it, with all of this cacophony going on around and seeing, you know, who and dancers turn up stage and their faces get, you know, they're gasping for breath. It was a wonderful experience. Yeah.

Speaker OK, let's talk about the American theater lab. What was it paid for it? What was unusual about it?

Speaker The American theater lab, first of all, people like to use that word experiment. It wasn't an experiment, but it was it was like almost like a it was a workshop that did research into a lot of different theatrical forms, cultural forms in and then put into the service of new material, sometimes texts, Shakespeare, Euripides, sometimes modern text, John, and sometimes improvise improvisatory text that we would work on ourselves. And I think for Jerry, it was a chance to merge things that he loved about theater, you know, his things that he had absorbed as an intellectual and also to see where dance could go, where movement could go. We worked with movement more than we worked with dance. And for all of us, it was it was a laboratory. It was a workshop. We trained, you know, besides having on a cycle of teach, you know, the kind of peculiar combination of ballet and modern class. We we worked on vocal production. We worked on singing. We worked on various scenes from Shakespeare. And then we would utilize them as a kind of text for a form. I have to back up a little bit when I say forms. There was there there were there were training sessions in a lot of eastern forms, Japanese, no theatre. We we learned mask techniques from several different cultures. We learned the Japanese tea ceremony. I think that's where my knees are so bad. We we learned a lot of improvisational sort of techniques. But it wasn't just about improvising. It was about utilizing all of these forms, sometimes in an improvisatory way, sometimes directly laid on something. For a while, we we worked on a play by Bertolt Brecht called The Measures Taken. And again, we worked with Bernstein on that because it has a score by Hans Eisler and we worked on the diaries of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Speaker I'm going to back you up a little bit because we'll come back to OK, to the whole Kennedy kind of chapter, uh, who paid for the American theater lab? And what was unusual about that? Do you know what I mean? Mm hmm.

Speaker I have to say, I'm not certain about how it came to be, but I do know that by the time it started the National Endowment for the Arts under a different name, I think at that point had the authority to give money for this kind of workshop and research to an individual. And it was the first grant, multi-year grant given to an individual. So I think that went a long way towards supporting the work. We were paid not tremendous amounts, but we were well paid for our time and we worked the way you would work. Let's say, if you were rehearsing a Broadway show, except a little bit more extreme, we would come in, we'd have classes in the morning, we would do some kind of workshop techniques with other people. We'd have lunch and Jerry would come in in the afternoon and worked on, you know, one or two projects.

Speaker I just want to get back again to the NEA. The National Endowment for the Arts did pay for it. But could you tell me what was expected in return for that?

Speaker Oh, well. Let me be clear. Generally speaking, when a person gets a grant from the NBA, they're expected to deliver something in return, either if it's a product from a product.

Speaker And so what was expected of Jerry, I'm going to assume here, because I don't know for certain being that this was the first grant, it would have a definite timeline, but it would also have some kind of a report at the end. Now, I don't know whether it was spelled out that there would be performance. I'm not sure about that. And I think it was not spelled out because towards the end of the timeline, for one reason or another, he gave back some funds.

Speaker It, by the way, it's sort of an unprecedented grant. Oh, absolutely. The endowment's history, because it's the only grant that anybody can think of in which there was no result required, which was extraordinary and says a lot about Jerry. Yeah. Jerry said that he he wanted to make theater pieces. We want to see if he could make theater pieces the way he made dance. Can you sort of explain what he meant by that in practical terms?

Speaker OK, well, first of all, you have to realize it was the mid 60s.

Speaker Improvisation was everywhere. It was literally off the walls. Know, but that's not what we did there. We didn't just come in and mess around all the time. As I said before, we we trained, we learn, learn some of the world theater techniques. And because most of us, not everybody, but most of us had a sort of dual career in dance and in theater, people like Jimmy Mitchell, we we could, I think, tolerate this. And I go way out on a limb here. But I think we could tolerate the way Jerry worked as a choreographer with dancers, which is sometimes to give them a lot of leeway and other times to take it away and say, go back and do that the way I want it.

Speaker You know, and he also, I think, was learning a lot of lessons about how people respond to direction. And he wanted to do something other than just direct a play where you've got a script and, you know, you try to work with actors to understand the script and your character and what not. What what I think he wanted to do was really put some of these forms together in a new way. So, for example, we did a lot of things with choral techniques. Now, I had done a lot of this because I worked on a lot of Euripides plays with the Greek director, Catriona's, and we would we would approach, let's say, a character or part of Macbeth in a choral way. And this might turn into actually a song. It might break up and become more literal, a more literal rendering of the text, or it might go totally surreal and involve animalistic kinds of behaviors. And you never knew where it was going to go. It was not a safe kind of workshop by any means. But again, it was an education, a wonderful things started to come out of it. The problem was nothing was ever finished.

Speaker OK, we're going to get back to that, you started to talk before I don't want to forget about this, about Jerry took an interest in the Warren Commission report and the matters surrounding the assassination, and that became at some point part of the labs activities.

Speaker Mm hmm.

Speaker After a certain time of doing a lot of pieces that never really coalesced, we started working on the Warren Commission report. And, you know, that had 500 pages or more of material. And we we really delved into it quite a bit.

Speaker And we would take out sections of the reportage, particularly a couple of sections. I think one had to do with the actual moment of the assassination and the caravan, the the cars and what happened. And we would dissect that in a number of different ways. And we would do it in very kind of close knit form. We would do it in in something that was much more surrealistic. We would try to literally form the caravan with our bodies. We would do a lot of work that curiously enough, later on we found out that the the Open Theater was working on that same piece of material. So the Warren Report, again or the other way round, the forms became used in the service of bringing certain passages of the Warren Report to life, not in a literal way, but to to really find the truth and the theatrical form. OK.

Speaker No. You also did a lot of work with no drama, correct?

Speaker Well, we had I wouldn't say that we did a lot of work with that, but that was a training. We I remember had a woman for a while who was teaching us some of the techniques. You know, were you you kind of like bring your arms forward and the fingers and, you know, you become this kind of heavily, heavily moving force. We would work with things like that and then we would translate that to something very prosaic. Sometimes, I mean, we would develop little swatches of improvised dialogue in, you know, just a little improv sessions kind of the way you would do in an acting class. And we would come up with one that was maybe a few sentences long and see how it could be shredded and put together and shredded and put together in another way. And some of that was utilizing some of these masked techniques or the movement techniques of no drama. We never we never really delved into any of the operas, say that, you know, is comprised of. But the idea of the kind of slow, tension filled movement was part of it. And there were eventually exercising, not exercise. Eventually were projects that we did that were totally without words that got longer and longer and excruciatingly slow, and that contained a lot of sort of implied nostalgias. Only thing I could think of to say, because we would work in a defined space tape on the floor, something like that. And we had a kind of technique by that time about moving through time in space in a particular space. And some of those were more like no dramas than, you know, trying to study you, no drama and making it us.

Speaker So you do this vast array of activities, disparate activities. Where did it all lead?

Speaker Well, I think for a while when we had the American theater lab space at Yale, I think there was talk at that point about really doing something in public. And all of us have been champing at the bit for two years. Not everybody had lasted the whole two years, but a few of us had. And it was time was time to do something with us, you know. But what seemed to come out in the last part of it was the Warren Commission report stuff. And God knows that was topical and also these strangely slow moving, you know, kabuki. No, like mini dramas without words. And at the very point at the wine, when it when it was winding down, when the whole lab experience was winding down, Jerry was not there a lot. And he would sort of send in surrogates, you know, to work on certain things. But then he would come back and we would go more deeply into these slow moving exercises and include improbable props, you know, a piece of rope or a squished up paper cartons or a floaty piece of fabric or something. And there was this is where I used the word this sort of implied nostalgia. It was almost like dying. So it's like the end of life and it got pretty excruciating doing these things after a while, and then finally he was away for about a week and we got word that. This was yet we were going to disband after another week. Well. That material, that experience turned into Watermill, the New York City Ballet's piece, and then later on the freedom, I think that came with the dancers at a gathering and other dances and those kinds of things. I don't know what happened with the Kennedy material. I think he would like to have done that. But somehow it never happened. He backed away from it.

Speaker It must be very difficult for the performers.

Speaker Well, yes and no. You know, I mean, there was an awful lot to chew on in that period of time.

Speaker And sometimes there were times where you said, oh, I don't want to go in there tomorrow. But, you know, but other times it by God, we we were all kind of stuffed with all this stuff. I myself became a director and choreographer when I finished that experience. I had a company for a while and then that. Oh, sure. Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Because I had always been an actor and, you know, those two things were hard to balance, classic dance and acting. You know, I never was a modern dancer. So, you know, I sort of didn't know how to combine that. But after American theater lab, I began to teach and think about the work that I wanted to see done and so did a lot of other people.

Speaker So it was an incubator. And, um, can you relate the work that was done in old to. The larger picture of what was going on, you mentioned open data, for example, the larger picture of what was going on in the cultural life of New York in the country.

Speaker Well, not only did you know that could relate not only to the United States, but particularly to Europe, where he had Grotowski and Peter Brook. And here you had the living theatre, the open theater on a. Can't think of your last name. I'm from San Francisco, who had a company comprised of herself and a lot of men and they mostly danced nude. Oh, I'll think of it later. There were many influences that I think inspired Jerry to start American theater and friends. Bob Wilson was a young guy. I knew Bob actually from way back, and he was a friend of Jerry's and there were other people off of Broadway. You know, dance was changing a lot. Modern dance was just kind of on a roll at that time. And you had the Grand Union and you had all of the people who made manifestos about what is and isn't dancing. And I think the mood, you know, there were there were marches going on there. There were people doing street theater. I myself did some of that. And it was heady. I think in a way, Jerry definitely was influenced by Gutowski and the Polish theater lab. And in fact, during the second era that we were working, they the Gutowski company came here and we all sort of went together to see it. And there was talk about an exchange which never happened. So there was all of this in the air. The only difference was that we were in a hothouse, you know, most most improvisational companies, most of those street theater companies who were like, you want to come in and join us, you know, we're doing all these great.

Speaker We weren't that way. We had to sign disclaimers saying that we wouldn't talk. And, you know, there were there were a lot of notes taken. But I think Jerry was, as usual, very private about it.

Speaker What do you mean you had to sign a disclaimer?

Speaker Well, I don't know if that's what it's really called, but we signed a contract and in it it stipulated that we not speak about the work.

Speaker What do you suppose that was necessary? I think his insecurity about it, you know, I think he wanted this private place to work, hoping that it would bloom and it would, you know, take its rightful place as a theatrical event.

Speaker You worked with Gerry as both a dancer and an actor, and I wonder if you can give me. Some idea of the comparison between how he worked with those two different kinds of artists and where he was more effective and why.

Speaker Well, most of the acting work I did with Jerry was either through the lab or in the West Side Story, which I did not in the beginning, but later on. And, you know, a couple of things we did in Spoleto and. It seemed that his approach at that time with actors was very much the approach he took with dancers, which was to try and impart his vision and get them to respond to that vision. Now, there's always wiggle room for something, but with actors and I've heard this from people who worked with him in Mother Courage, the production he did with Anne Bancroft and Oded Poor did that thing off Broadway. And I was kind of around for part of that. And it was hard for actors, you know, to really get their marching orders from Jerry. And I think it took him a while to really learn how to trust actors and point them in the right direction with very subtle words and then let them go. And and he was always reluctant to do that. What is. Well, I think directing I think directing plays and directing actors is a very different technique, and I do know that he was part of the actors on. You know, the Actors Guild, the Actors Studio, and he must have understood that, that there was a kind of technique, a process involved there, but he he didn't really use it.

Speaker Did you read that story?

Speaker Yeah, I know I I was going to replace it when it went to London and then I stayed with you USA, but that when they revived the show at City Center, I played anybody's. Yeah.

Speaker And so Jerry directed you in it.

Speaker Well, it was partially directed that production by Jerry Friedman. And then of course his honor came in later, redirected everything from my relationship with Jerry, moved all the time.

Speaker You know, I was kind of a young brat when I first met her and I asked some brash questions, and I think he like that. I mean, you know, later on he said only a few times and hurt my feelings made me cry, but I never cried in front of it. You go out. So I remember one time we spoke later I went out on the balcony. I was learning the novice in the cage was hurt.

Speaker And also this was one of those ballets he had done before. And look who had done it on Norrick and later Tammy and people like that, you know. So who was I to learn this?

Speaker You know, and he used to say, you haven't done your homework, you know, but he hadn't sort of given me the TLC. I needed to do the homework. And then when I did roles that.

Speaker I liked he liked me and I felt very good with him, except there were always those times in rehearsals where he he just, you know, he was in a foul temper and he'd like to hurt somebody's feelings socially. I interacted with him a little bit. I remember, you know, there was always a poker game somewhere. We played poker. And as I said, those years in Spoleto were kind of fun because he had this place and in the theater lab, oh, when we were working. And he only knows, as I said, I felt really very connected to him and what he was doing there. But I remember a couple of times, actually, once I yelled at him because we were on the stage of the state theater doing kind of like a lighting design rehearsal, you know, and everybody was tired and he suddenly was yelling for out, you know, get yourselves together and do it. And I just went down to the front. I didn't really yell, but I said, Jerry, we're all doing the best we can up here, you know? So I felt at a certain time in my life that I could, you know, interact that way. And in American theater lab, because he was asking us to do very retching things every day and asking the most from us. It was hard. And then socializing with him, like going out to lunch was very awkward, you know, so it sort of depended. I maintained a friendship very occasionally over the years, and mainly it was through my brother in law, James Moore, who was the register for some of his valets and who also had been in ATL. And he saw a lot of Jerry. And sometimes I was asked to come and look at a rehearsal. So they were restaging or something like that. And towards the last I saw him a couple of times and I just felt really privileged to have worked with him.

Speaker When you say he hurt your feelings, can you give me just an idea of what he would do?

Speaker I can't remember anything. It would be it would be something that made you feel that you couldn't do what he wanted.

Speaker You know, that's not good for a performer, you know, a performer needs to know, I mean, once in a while it's OK to smack people a little bit, you know, to get some gumption going. What did you learn from it?

Speaker I learned a lot about. Taking the stage for my own and I I learned a lot about what I could do. I didn't have monster chops as a technician and so as a ballet dancer, but I could move and I had presence and I had something he liked and he made me go, Father.

Speaker Good. Is there anything that you would like to tell me about your work with Gerri that I haven't asked?

Speaker Um, well, sometimes he could be very, um, I don't know what the word is kind of capricious or funny, almost having like he sometimes he like to do practical jokes. And that was always such a surprise because here was this guy who could be such a monster when he needed to be and when he did practical jokes or when you saw him in a situation where he wasn't totally at ease, like that moment where he ordered the wrong thing from the menu. And then, you know, I had to say, well, I couldn't do it because you realized how tender a spot he had and how difficult it must have been for him, you know.

Speaker That. He was scared sometimes.

Speaker It's hard to imagine, but you could see it once in a while, can you just elaborate?

Speaker Well, I think I think towards the end of, let's say, the American theater lab, he got burned out and I think.

Speaker I think he couldn't go through the possibility of a failure. And at that time, I guess he had been talking with Balanchine about coming back to City Ballet and it was, you know.

Speaker So. Do you think that he would have been better off if the arts endowment, instead of giving him a kind of, you know, here's X amount of dollars, do whatever you want? They had said that at the end you will have to produce. I mean, can you talk about that?

Speaker Yes, I do. I do think that it would have been better had we performed something, even if it had been a series of very casual workshop performances or something like that, because the work that we touched on was so interesting and it went to such a deep level that we all wanted to do that, of course. And I think it would have helped him if we if we all could have said, look, this is far from finished, but we're going to do a whole bunch of performances here. Maybe we're going to go to Spillett. We did talk about that and I don't know whatever happened with her, but somehow he burned out and went away from it. But I do think it's not a bad thing when you give people that much money to say, you know, kind of stick it to them and let's say, you know, especially if you don't want to say, oh, my God, the whole thing was a failure. Forget it. I'm sorry I ever did it. That wasn't the case, you know.

Erin Martin
Interview Date:
2006-07-17
Runtime:
1:19:36
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-ww76t0hs2z, cpb-aacip-504-mg7fq9qw14, cpb-aacip-504-kw57d2qz2r
MLA CITATIONS:
"Erin Martin, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 17 Jul. 2006, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/999
APA CITATIONS:
(2006, July 17). Erin Martin, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/999
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Erin Martin, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). July 17, 2006. Accessed January 25, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/999

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