Dancing ballet or not

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  February 10, 2009

Vaill's storyline takes us from Robbins's early life as a modern dancer and show-biz novice to his conversion upon seeing Alexandra Danilova dance Swan Lake. After that he wanted to choreograph ballets, though his greatest gift was the vernacular. The smash hit Fancy Free, for American Ballet Theatre in 1944, and its smash hit spinoff, On the Town, for Broadway, established him as a wunderkind in both camps. For the rest of his life he commuted between them.

We get clips, some quite extensive, from his wide-ranging dances and shows: the original cast of Fancy Free (Robbins, John Kriza, and Harold Lang) intercut with New York City Ballet dancers from the 1980s; a stunning segment of Afternoon of a Faun (1953) with Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jacques d'Amboise; a breathtaking duet for Stephanie Saland and Ib Andersen from Dances at a Gathering (1969); clips from the musicals — Call Me Madam, Peter Pan, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story. According to Vaill and many of those interviewed, Robbins's insecurities didn't diminish when he offered to join New York City Ballet in any capacity and his idol George Balanchine said, "Come on." He was an important addition to the NYCB enterprise, a humanizing element in a company often perceived as austere and highbrow.

When I looked at his late ballets, I thought he was trying desperately to be classical, and I wondered whether the people at the company looked down on him a bit. They would have even if he'd stuck to plebeian charm. It didn't matter. The audience adored him whatever he did.

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