(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her exquisite biography of Jerome Robbins, Deborah Jowitt successfully combines a popular, readable, intelligible style with uncompromising scholarship. Jowitt sports unquestioned credentials in the dance world, which make her a reliable source of insight into Robbins's dance. She is a former dancer who began her professional career in 1953; the principal dance critic forThe Village Voice since 1967; the author of a prizewinning and widely used textbook, Time and the Dancing Image (1988); and a member of the dance faculty at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. That she was also in New York in Robbins's era and active in the world in which he worked make her observations of him, culled from numerous sources (the list of names in her “Acknowledgements” reads like a Who's Who of twentieth century dance) and from her own recollections, more than credible.

Jowitt's access to and use of the material in The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and privately held sources in The Jerome Robbins Foundation and the Robbins Rights Trust buttress the scholarly dimension of the work. As her title indicates, this is a work about Robbins the man but also about the dance he created over many years and the theater he participated in and, in many ways, molded into his own creation.

Like Jowitt's other essays, forewords, and books such as Dance in Mind (1985), a collection of essays, and her edition of Meredith Monk: An Anthology (1997), this work avoids an overuse of the special language of the dance world and has footnotes to explain some of the dance or theater terms she cites or quotes that might otherwise make the work less accessible. Accessibility is exactly the effect her use of language achieves as she invites readers to share the journey she takes through Robbins's private and professional life. Jowitt is also unflinching in her examination of his sometimes untidy personal life, his doubts, conflicts, and inner demons, his flitting from lover to lover, his insecurities, and his compensation for them. Most of all, she is concerned with telling the stories of his dance, his innovations, his demands on himself and on others in alternations between frenzied periods of work and brief periods of indolence. Her twenty chapters tell those stories in a lively, coherent, and sometimes conversational tone.

Jowitt spends brief but adequate time in recounting Robbins's youth as Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, son of Russian Jewish immigrants; Robbins's early concepts of being Jewish; his first encounters with the dance through the influence of his sister, Sonia; and his growing awareness of the creative genius within him which would blossom in the decades ahead. Significantly, Jowitt opens the work with a section of Jerome's high-school essay “My Selves,” which treats the many masks this complex young man thought of himself as having and, prophetically, of the many masks Jerry Robbins would use in the course of a theatrical career and life.

Guided by his early mentor, Gluck Sandor, young Rabinowitz began to make serious progress as a dancer, finding himself in the hothouse atmosphere of Camp Tamiment in the Pocono Mountains during the summers of the late 1930's and early 1940's. There he learned the art of collaboration in dance, entertainments, and sketches, got a chance to choreograph, and had the good fortune of working with other young artists such as Imogene Coca, Danny Kaye, Anita Alvarez, Herbert Ross, and many others who would be part of his world for time to come. Indeed, as Jowitt shows, this formative time also helped Robbins establish a store of routines and concepts he would later mine for much of his professional life.

Tracing Robbins's life over the next few years, Jowitt provides numerous examples of the kinds of versatility a young dancer had to acquire and deepen as she describes his explorations of Broadway and the ballet, finding in his alternations between those two dance media a pattern that would shape the remainder of his life. In the late 1930's Robbins was making the acquaintance of George Balanchine of the American Ballet Company and Lincoln Kirstein, both of whom would figure prominently in Robbins's life in the decades ahead. Additionally, as Robbins learned new techniques, refined...

(The entire section is 1763 words.)