Dancing ballet or not

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  February 10, 2009

All of a sudden, as a woman (Meredith Dincolo) is hunkering down in a corner between two walls, the music breaks off. The audience panics, as we always do when something goes wrong, but the woman carries on in near-silence. In the distance, Ravel squeaks and wheezes on, perhaps from a backstage speaker.

Not just in a technical jam, the woman is soon beset by men barging in one after another and slinging her around, pinning her to the walls, in a nightmare of amorous entrapment. When the music blurts back on, the woman and the man who's there at the moment continue dancing together as if there'd been no crisis.

The central character in Walking Mad is a high wooden wall, designed by Inger, that accordions in to make Dincolo's corner. Unfolded, it extends the width of the stage. It's solid enough for people to slam into or jump up and dangle from. A big section of it is laid flat to make a dancing platform for a line-up of celebrants in raincoats and derbys.

And it's equipped with many doors, allowing for endless surprise appearances, collisions, and knockabout chases. By some odd coincidence, the funniest, most extravagant staging of this ancient vaudeville trope, the Keystone Cops pursuing Phil Silvers in and out of a row of overcrowded beach cabanas in the musical High Button Shoes (1947), will re-emerge briefly next week on PBS. The choreographer, Jerome Robbins, restaged the number for Jerome Robbins' Broadway in 1989. I'm not accusing Inger of larceny, but Robbins might have. He was fiercely protective of his works, and only toward the end of his life did he allow filmed recordings of them to reach the public.

The new American Masters special Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About (airs this Wednesday, February 18, at 9 pm on WGBH) surveys the famous choreographer's crossover successes and more than a few of his personal weaknesses. Robbins's life was a theater of dualities, and the two-hour documentary, produced and directed by Judy Kinberg, testifies to this with generous illustrations of his dances and shows, his conflicted sexuality, his tremendous achievements and self-doubt. Fifty or so of his associates describe working with a creative dynamo and terrorizing taskmaster.

The documentary doesn't gloss over his naming names of former Communist Party members to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954, a moment he's said to have regretted for the rest of his life. ("I hope so," says one of the people he outed.) There's enough footage of Robbins being interviewed at different times for us to sense his obsessions, his pleasures, and his never-ending search for himself.

Kinberg negotiated the problem posed by the recent publication of two massive Robbins biographies only two years apart by having one of the authors, Amanda Vaill, write the script and the other, Deborah Jowitt, serve as an on-screen critic-commentator. There's a momentum to the show you don't often find when there are so many talking heads, but I think the team of Kinberg and Vaill, with editors Molly Bernstein and Girish Bhargava, did a masterful job in shaping the material.

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