As a dancer, and later as a choreographer and director, the legendary Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) worked to combine the high art of ballet with the commercial art of the Broadway musical. More often than not, his efforts resulted in landmarks of American dance: West Side Story (1957), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and Dances at a Gathering (1969). In exploring his career, the Peabody-award winning documentary "Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About" effectively provides a history of dance in the United States during the twentieth century. Yet, the documentary also reveals Robbins' innately contradictory character. Despite his efforts, Robbins was never completely at ease when moving between highbrow and middlebrow, between the ballet and the chorus line. He, together with many of the dancers who worked for him, suffered from his desire for perfection coupled with a deep-seated and persistent sense of being an outsider. Director Judy Kinberg works hard to present a balanced picture of Robbins as an easy man to hate but equally an easy man to love; his genius and drive for perfection made both equally possible.
Kinberg had unprecedented access to Robbins' personal journals, dating back to his early childhood, and to previously unseen rehearsal footage of Robbins at various stages in his career. Even so, "Something to Dance About" focuses primarily on Robbins' career and dips into his personal life only to trace how it influenced his development as a dancer and choreographer. The tone is set right from the start: Stephen Sondheim begins the documentary, saying, "Jerry is the only genius I've ever met." After a series of quick snippets of impressions of Robbins from a succession of talking heads—ranging from "he was a doll" to "he was a terror"—the documentary [End Page 77] uses extended footage from a 1959 Edward R. Murrow television interview before segueing to archival photographs of Robbins as a child, a segment on his early childhood interest in dance, and quotations from his private journals. Yet even after the revelations provided by his private journals, Robbins the person remains distant and opaque, while Robbins the dancer/choreographer comes through with much more clarity.
Indeed, Robbins remarked in his journals and in interviews that he was always putting on and removing masks. He revealed himself to be riddled with self-doubt, confused over his Jewish heritage, ashamed of his attraction to men, and insecure over his talents as a choreographer when compared to George Balanchine, choreographer and longtime head of the New York City Ballet. Kinberg often accompanies these instances of self-revelation with archival footage of Robbins dancing in rehearsal or demonstrating a step to another dancer. These scenes make apparent Robbins' genius and his personal vulnerability, as he takes out his insecurities on his dancers. The documentary thus parallels the structure of Broadway musicals and classical ballet where dance is used to express emotions when words fail.
The nature of dance as an embodied form of art, in which knowledge is created physically, is manifested in the documentary's archival footage and also in extensive interviews with dancers. Some of the dancers struggle to translate the experience of dancing for Robbins into mere words. Viewers who are not dancers can gain insight into why so many performers can praise and damn Robbins within the same breath, especially when the interviews are deployed as voiceovers for archival footage of Robbins' work; this method tangibly connects the verbal with the physical, and memories of performances with the performances themselves. Such an approach is crucial to understanding Robbins' impact on musical theater and American dance more broadly because as Mikhail Baryshnikov remarks in an interview late in the documentary, Robbins wanted to audiences to "experience his thoughts through his body" and, later, through his choreography.
A clear strength of the documentary is that it allows everyone — whether icons like the composer/lyricist Sondheim, who collaborated with Robbins, or relative unknowns — to voice varying degrees of anger and lingering hurt over how Robbins treated them. Yet, with very few exceptions, all...