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.
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.