5 Things to Know About Jerome Robbins
PBT’s May 4-6, production of UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free is part of a nationwide, year-long celebration of the 100th birthdays of choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein. They collaborated on several important works, including the ballet Fancy Free (the basis for the hit musical On the Town) and the Broadway and film sensation, West Side Story.
Here are five things you should know about Jerome Robbins, the dance icon behind PBT’s season finale production of UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free:
1. He started young. Jerome Robbins was just 24 years old when he began choreographing his first ballet and claim to fame, Fancy Free, which later inspired the Broadway hit On the Town. At the time, Robbins was still dancing as a founding company member of Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) and had to create the ballet on the fly – between stops, on the tour bus and in hotel lobbies. Fancy Free was an instant sensation, sparking 22 curtain calls at the time of its premiere. In the ballet Robbins and Bernstein (and designer Oliver Smith) capture a moment in wartime New York that they – and the original audience – were all living in. Smith’s spare and wistful set design and Bernstein’s jazzy score create an atmosphere that is – to this day – undeniably American. Robbins’ first try at professional choreography signaled his genius for natural, spontaneous movement that adeptly reveals character and relationships.
2. He was an iconic choreographer in ballet…Following his choreographic debut at American Ballet Theatre, Robbins joined New York City Ballet and quickly ascended to the post of associate artistic director, working alongside George Balanchine. With the exception of brief sabbaticals, Robbins worked with NYCB from 1949 until his death in 1998 and created many of his great works there. Among the more than 60 ballets he created during his career are Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, The Concert, Dances At a Gathering, In the Night, In G Major, Other Dances, Glass Pieces and Ives, Songs, which are in the repertories of New York City Ballet and other major dance companies worldwide. His final ballets include A Suite of Dances created for Mikhail Baryshnikov (1994), 2 & 3 Part Inventions (1994), West Side Story Suite (1995) and Brandenburg (1996).
3. And on Broadway. In addition to his work in the ballet world, Robbins is world renowned for his work as a director and choreographer in theater, movies and television. His Broadway shows include On the Town, Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam and Fiddler on the Roof. His last Broadway production, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), won six Tony Awards including best musical and best director.
4. He is an icon in dance with the awards and accolades to back it up. In addition to two Academy Awards for the film West Side Story, Robbins has received five Tony Awards, including best choreography for West Side Story, five Donaldson Awards, an Emmy Award, the Screen Directors’ Guild Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Robbins was a 1981 Kennedy Center Honors Recipient and was awarded the French Chevalier dans l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur.
5. He worked with one of our own. PBT Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr remembers Jerome Robbins as exacting, intuitive and genuinely genius. Over his three decades with American Ballet Theatre, first as a principal dancer and then as the company’s ballet master, Orr worked repeatedly with Robbins – in the studio as a dancer and later as a repetiteur for his works. “I’ll never forget Jerry’s genius for the details that make a masterpiece,” Orr said. “Fancy Free, in particular, holds a special place in my heart. I had the privilege of learning one of the sailor parts from original cast member John Kriza and dancing the role for many years with ABT. We plan to do Jerry proud with this program.”
And to think: In the 1930s, Robbins intended to study either chemistry or journalism at New York University until the Depression depleted his family’s ability to support his education. It was then that Robbins returned to his early aptitude for music, dancing and theatrics. The rest is Broadway and ballet history.
Experience the PBT premieres of three Robbins masterworks in UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free on stage with the PBT Orchestra May 4-6, at the Benedum Center. Get your tickets here.
Behind the Scenes: Dancers Make Vocal Debuts in ‘West Side Story Suite’
In West Side Story Suite, PBT dancers won’t just be dancing…they’ll add singing to their repertoire too.
In honor of international centennial celebrations for choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, PBT will be bringing ballet fans a triple threat of company premieres — and acting, singing and dancing performances — in UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free on stage May 4-6, at the Benedum Center.
To prepare for their vocal debuts, the dancers have been working with Joan Barber, a vocal coach from the Jerome Robbins Foundation, who was the original Somewhere soloist for West Side Story Suite when it debuted with the New York City Ballet. As an actor and singer, Barber has performed on Broadway and sung on the original sound tracks of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Pocahontas and others.
She’s also taught voice lessons for 30 years. And beginning this winter, Barber has worked extensively with PBT’s newly minted vocalists on their range and annunciation as well as the intention behind each lyric they sing.
“What does the song mean and who are you singing to?” Barber prompts. “They’ve all got their own individual interpretation of how to do the songs, and I encourage that…Bernstein’s music is so rich. Sondheim’s lyrics are so rich…every dot, every accent mark…everything means something in this music.”
Here’s how 4 dancers summed up their vocal journeys:
“I sing a fair amount but we’re talking along to songs I like in the shower/car/kitchen! It’s totally new. That being said I was in the school chorus in sixth grade. And I would say it feels totally natural. It is scary but they have been so supportive throughout the entire process. The singing is just another extension of the character — another means of expression. It’s a fantastic thing to get to explore…using my voice on stage for the first time at this late date in my PBT career! The more we learn about how to use the instrument, the more dynamic and complex we realize it is. And singing and dancing at the same time doesn’t just add one additional element; when you add in stage direction, projection, annunciation, style, breath and all the other things it’s quite a bit more to manage!”
“Singing and dancing is something I’ve never experienced at this magnitude. I’ve only taken one singing class in my life and I don’t have fond memories. The coaching I’ve received as Anita has been inspiring and empowering. I was told to stay in my head voice on the very high notes instead of switching to my soprano, which is what I was doing in the beginning, and I feel like I’ve grown more than I was expecting to! I have a new-found confidence in my singing, especially on those higher notes. Being coached to take hold of what I have and strengthen it has been incredible. (Barber) really pushed me and believed in me when I didn’t.”
“We had to sing in front of the entire company two years ago to audition for the lady who wound up being the vocal coach for West Side Story Suite. That was a kind of nerve-wracking, but besides that day it’s been a great experience! By the time the show comes I will have sung in front of the company enough times that a couple more hundred people won’t make me more or less nervous. It’s harder to sing in front of people face to face with the lights on than in a packed house with the lights off. I felt that way when I had to sing for A Streetcar Named Desire and this is way more fun to sing.”
“I would consider myself to be a quiet person and throwing myself into the role of Rosalia is the farthest outside my comfort zone I have ever pushed myself. I grew up singing in choirs, but being vulnerable enough to perform solo work isn’t something I ever pictured myself doing. And yet, the more we rehearse, the more I find myself really enjoying it.”
Experience the PBT premieres of UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free on stage with the PBT Orchestra May 4-6, at the Benedum Center. Get your tickets here.
Sneak Peek: West Side Story Suite
This spring, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre celebrates the 100th birthdays of iconic choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein with a triple bill of PBT premieres: UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free, on stage May 4-6, at the Benedum Center.
Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) is a cultural giant in both ballet and Broadway dance. His Broadway hits include On the Town, Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, and Fiddler on the Roof. His last Broadway production, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), won six Tony Awards including best musical and best director.
Throughout his career, which included a long-term position as New York City Ballet’s associate artistic director, He choreographed more than 60 ballets, including Fancy Free and In The Night, which PBT also will perform in May.
“No choreographer has so epitomized the American scene, or been so prolific in his expenditure of his creative energy. He contributed a great body of superb work to our dance culture, represented all over the world, and in the continuous performances of musicals during the last 35 years.” New York City Ballet
Beginning in the late 1940s, Robbins teamed up with the brilliant composer Bernstein to create West Side Story, a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, which sets the love story on the streets of 1950s New York in the crosshairs of two feuding gangs: The Jets and the Sharks.
Capturing the essence of the full-length musical, West Side Story Suite premiered in 1995 and samples iconic songs and Tony-winning choreography from the duo’s Broadway musical (1957) — and Academy Award-winning film (1961) — with choreography by Robbins, music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and scenery by Oliver Smith.
In the words of Principal dancer Julia Erickson, “West Side Story is such a crowd pleaser. It’s based off of Romeo and Juliet, so it’s a universally compelling story and I think that the suite picks out the greatest parts of it and puts it together in something that can be presented in an evening of ballet.”
Get a sneak peek:
Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr Reveals 17-18 Season Lineup
PBT’s 2017-2018 Season lineup features the return of “Swan Lake” and PBT’s debut in “West Side Story Suite”- presented by UPMC – just in time for the centennial celebrations of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, who would celebrate their 100th birthdays in 2018.
The five-ballet season runs October 2017 through May 2018 and features: “Dracula;” “The Nutcracker;” “Swan Lake” with the PBT Orchestra; “PBT New Works,” a mixed repertory program at the August Wilson Center; and a season finale featuring Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite” and “In the Night,” also with the PBT Orchestra.
“This season is going to be a thrill and the timing, too, is great fun. We have ‘Dracula’ over Halloween weekend, ‘The Nutcracker’ to ring in the holidays and the great love story of ‘Swan Lake’ around Valentine’s Day,” said Terrence S. Orr, PBT artistic director. In March, we’ll give voice to emerging choreographers from our own company of dancers. And last but certainly not least is our tribute to the Robbins and Bernstein centennial celebrations with ‘West Side Story Suite’ – and ‘In the Night’ – a program that is going to show off the exceptional technique and acting of our dancers as well as some unexpected, and rarely heard, vocal talent.’”
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“Dracula” – Oct. 27-29, 2017 at the Benedum Center
Choreographer: Ben Stevenson | Music: Franz Liszt | Costumes: Judanna Lynn | Lighting: Timothy Hunter | Set Design: Thomas Boyd | World Premiere: Houston Ballet, March 13, 1997 (originally created as a co-production between Houston Ballet and PBT)
Over Halloween weekend, PBT brings back the deliciously spine-chilling “Dracula,” based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel – the grandfather of all vampire dramas. Dissatisfied with his bevy of undead brides, Count Dracula fixates on Svetlana, a young girl on the cusp of engagement, to satiate his thirst for fresh blood. A haunting score by Franz Liszt builds suspense while scenic designer Thomas Boyd’s fastidious studies of Balkan and Romanian architecture add authenticity to the 19th-century Transylvanian setting. The dancing also has teeth, with levitation, flying and pyrotechnics that make the choreography even more climactic. At the time of its premiere, the New York Times described it as a “spectacle of an order ballet audiences seldom see today.”
The Nutcracker – Dec. 1-27, 2017 at the Benedum Center
Choreography & Staging: Terrence S. Orr | Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky | Costumes & Scenic Design: Zack Brown | Lighting: Julie Duro | World Premiere: PBT, December 2002
“The Nutcracker” returns to the Benedum for 25 performances throughout December. Complete with flurrying snow, a colossal Christmas tree and magic tricks galore, this holiday spectacular features over 100 dancers, 210 costumes and Tchaikovsky’s exultant score. Since its 1892 premiere, this holiday tradition has grown into one of the best-known ballets of all time. PBT adds its own spin on the time and place with a turn-of-the-century setting incorporating Pittsburgh’s own landmarks, historical figures and personality. Each performance features a unique casting combination, giving regulars the chance to see a variety of dancers perform principal roles like Marie, the Nephew, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
Swan Lake with the PBT Orchestra – Feb. 16-25, 2018 at the Benedum Center
Choreographer: Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov | Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky | Costumes: Peter Farmer | World Premiere: Imperial Ballet, St. Petersburg, January 27, 1895
An evil enchantment and a mysterious love story give wings to a ballet that has captured the public imagination since 1895. Together with the live PBT Orchestra, PBT returns to “Swan Lake” for two weekends around Valentine’s Day. “Swan Lake” exemplifies classical technique – from the ballet en blanc swan scenes to the Black Swan’s famous 32 fouettés. But it’s the undulating port de bras of the swans – a movement quality unique to “Swan Lake” – that lends its own mystique to the classical vocabulary. Set to the stirring themes of Tchaikovsky’s score, the split personalities of Odette and Odile mirror the age-old battle between good and evil.
“Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre: New Works” – March 16-25, 2018 at the August Wilson Center
Choreography: Mixed repertory program of world premiere works by PBT dancers
PBT has built its repertory around an eclectic mix of classics, modern masterworks and new commissions from both seasoned and emerging choreographers. In March at the August Wilson Center, Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr will hand over the program to five choreographic voices from PBT’s own company of dancers: Amanda Cochrane, Julia Erickson, Yoshiaki Nakano, William Moore and Cooper Verona. Each choreographer will create a signature work on his or her fellow artists, offering audience members a personal, insightful look at the way today’s dancers interpret their own medium.
“UPMC Presents ‘West Side Story Suite’ + ‘In the Night’” with the PBT Orchestra – May 4-6, 2018 at the Benedum Center
“West Side Story”:
Choreography by: Jerome Robbins
Music by: Leonard Bernstein (“Prologue,” “Something’s Coming,” “Dance at the Gym,” “Cool,” “America,” “Rumble,” and “Somewhere Ballet,” from West Side Story, 1957)
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim | Scenic Design: Oliver Smith | Costume Design: Irene Sharaff | Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton | Premiere: May 18, 1995: New York City Ballet
“In the Night”:
Choreography by: Jerome Robbins
Music: Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 27, No. 1 (1835); Nocturnes Opus 55, No. 1 and No. 2 (1843); Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2 (1830-1831) for solo piano | Premiere: January 29, 1970, New York City Ballet | Costumes by: Anthony Dowell | Lighting by: Jennifer Tipton
PBT’s season finale celebrates the 100th birthdays of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, whose game-changing Broadway collaboration remains as relevant today as it was in 1957. “West Side Story Suite” samples classic songs and dances from the full-length musical and film. In this work, the dancers not only dance – they’ll sing excerpts from the famous Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics. Tapping into the raw emotions that drove the full-length story, the dancers will take on the personas of Tony, Maria and the rival Jets and Sharks through the emotionally charged choreography that earned Robbins a Tony Award.
“West Side Story Suite” will share the program with another Robbins masterwork: his intimate 1940 work, “In the Night,” set to four Chopin nocturnes. With pas de deux for three couples, “In the Night” lifts the curtain on three very different relationships, exposing shades of love from tender to tumultuous.