Jerome Robbins On Television by Gregory Victor
Editor-in-Chief of the Jerome Robbins Foundation newsletter Gregory Victor has spent many years writing in specific detail about under-reported areas of Robbins' life and career. In this guest blog, he writes about Robbins' relationship with television. Robbins studied the medium technically, not passively in his role as audience, and gave much thought to its capacity and its limitations as producer.
Director/choreographer Jerome Robbins resisted working in television. Robbins had three main objections: the challenge in collapsing three-dimensional movement onto a depth-distorted screen, having to hand over creative control to a director and crew who specialized in television, and a suspicion that a studio taping would result in a performance robbed of its spontaneity, energy and life. In a 1960 New York Times article, Robbins explained: “You never sense in television the limitations of space. You cannot sense, either, the kinetic energy of the dancer nor his dangers, feats and pleasures. There is only an illusion, which the mind translates, of depth.” Although Robbins cared greatly for the preservation of his choreography, to allow someone else to frame, shoot, and edit his ballets was asking a lot. Thankfully, he did it anyway. Many of these Robbins choreographic appearances on TV can be found in the archive of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (Library call numbers are listed in parentheses in this blog) during this Robbins Centenary, and long after.
Tonight on Broadway was a weekly show (1948-50) that aired excerpts from Broadway shows live from the theaters where they were playing. The telecasts of abridged versions of High Button Shoes (on April 20, 1948) and Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’! (on May 25, 1948) gave Robbins the opportunity to see his work on the small screen for the first time. He wasn’t thrilled. As CBS telecast, Robbins could be found in the theater basement, hovering behind TV director Roland Gillette, who watched four screens and made split-second decisions about which image to use. It was a frustrating experience for Robbins, who had staged the numbers to be seen through a proscenium. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he told the New York Herald Tribune the next day, “I think television is a wonderful new medium for ballet and I’m all for it. But it was all I could do to keep from hollering ‘Oh, no!’ a couple of times.” If television was here to stay, the lesson for Robbins was clear: “The only answer I know is that I’d better learn something about television. Dances which employ pantomime, for example, may appear to be dull on the stage but come over well on television. High altitude leaps that are breathtaking in the theater lose their effect on video because the screen fails to convey the illusion of height.”
A new standard for TV entertainment was set on June 15, 1953, with The American Road: The Ford 50th Anniversary Show—TV’s first variety special, featuring Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, that aired live on both CBS and NBC (Call no. *MGZIA 4-6589 JRC ). There wasn’t a single commercial (unless you count the entire program as a 2-hour commercial—not only for Ford, but for television too). All of the show’s musical sequences were staged by Robbins, including: “By the Sea”—a comic dance sequence about bathing suits and manners; “Charleston” (a revised version of “Charleston” from the musical Billion Dollar Baby)—depicting characters from the “Roaring Twenties”; and “Popular Dance”—a look at popular social dances. In a clever sketch for Martin titled “The Shape,” a tongue-in-cheek narrator described the changing fashion styles from 1900 to 1953 as Martin demonstrated by rearranging a basic tubular piece of jersey, along with a hat, and adding perfect expressions to match (Call no. NCOX 2063). In a tribute to vaudeville, Merman and Martin lip-synched to a recording by the team of Billy Jones & Ernest Hare, known as “The Happiness Boys.” The highlight of the show was a medley performed by the pair of Broadway stars for a thrilling thirteen minutes. Robbins kept it simple, knowing that all he needed was a spotlight and a couple of stools, with Merman and Martin crooning. (Or was it Martin and Merman? Credit Robbins with having them switch stools once during the medley, in order to keep the billing equal.) Stools became a fixture—almost a cliché—in TV variety shows from then on. “I’ve been cursed for it ever since,” stated Robbins in the New York Times. Time Magazine wrote, “Perched on stools, both Mary and Ethel whipped through a rapid-fire medley of some of the best pop songs ever written. Televiewers hoped they would not have to wait another 50 years for so good a show. But if they do, it will be worth waiting for.” The program introduced the craftsmanship and creativity of the Broadway musical to TV. It was television, but television with the Robbins touch.
Mary Martin and her husband, producer Richard Halliday, impressed with Robbins, insisted that he oversee their next project, a musical of Peter Pan. As popular as Peter Pan was on Broadway, the show reached its greatest success on its three initial TV broadcasts. Robbins adapted, directed, and choreographed the telecast in NBC’s studio in Brooklyn on March 7, 1955 (Call no. *MGZIA 4-6201 JRC). It was the first time a Broadway musical had been transferred to television intact, and it thrilled 65,000,000 viewers—40% of the population of the United States. There was a second live telecast on January 9, 1956 (Call no. *MGZIA 4-1621), and a third (filmed for posterity) telecast on December 8, 1960.
On June 12, 1959, Robbins appeared on Person to Person, hosted by Edward R. Murrow (Call no. *MGZIA 4-6584 JRC ). Cameras visited Robbins at home and gave an intimate look at his preparations for the forthcoming tour of his company, Ballets: U.S.A. Robbins’ company next appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on July 19, 1959 (Call no. *MGZIA 4-6599 JRC), and November 29, 1959 (Call no. *MGZIA 4-6597 JRC). By now, Robbins was allowed more creative control than most acts. He was given more time than usual to prepare (using two days for camera run-throughs) and he used seven cameras instead of the usual three. Still, Robbins was never satisfied with the result, stating in an interview, “It’s hard on television to make dance work. The screen robs the dance of a lot of personal energy; it takes away much of the effort and daring of the dance.” Other appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show included January 17, 1960 (Call no. *MGZIA 4-6600 JRC)—of which Variety wrote, “the camera work got most of the Robbins dance design”—and February 21, 1960, with the company presenting an abridged version of The Concert.
Baryshnikov at the White House was telecast on PBS on April 15, 1979 (Call no. *MGZIDVD 5-5748). Although Robbins traveled to the White House to restage his choreography in order to make the best use of the East Room’s small stage (with its low, upstage chandelier), he remained skeptical, stating in the Los Angeles Times, “No film has ever truly recorded a ballet as a performance. The art of photographing dance for television hasn’t improved much in the last 20 years, it seems to me. One just hopes the work comes out not slaughtered.” On February 20, 1980, PBS’s “Dance in America” presented Two Duets, featuring Robbins’ Other Dances. This time, Robbins had a few demands: it was to be filmed in front of an audience, and it was to be shot on film (opting for a softer look, rather than the clarity of videotape).
On July 2, 1980 NBC devoted 90 minutes to Robbins with Live From Studio 8H: An Evening with Jerome Robbins and Members of the New York City Ballet. In deciding what to present, Robbins chose pieces intimate in nature (Afternoon of a Faun) and works with a narrative aspect (The Cage, and excerpts from Fancy Free, The Concert, and Dances at a Gathering). In this case, Robbins was not given the creative control to which he was accustomed. It was frustrating for him to have the artistic reins held tightly by NBC, and he abhorred the experience. It also ended up in 60th place in the Nielsen ratings—the week’s lowest rated program. On May 2, 1986 PBS’s Dance in America presented Choreography by Jerome Robbins with the New York City Ballet (Call no. *MGZIDVD 5-2799). The program presented Antique Epigraphs, and Fancy Free. On January 16, 1987 PBS’s Dance in America presented In Memory Of…: A Ballet by Jerome Robbins. Robbins bracketed the performance with two on-camera interviews with writer Rosalind Bernier, which proved as interesting as the ballet (Call no. *MGZIDVD 5-6087). It was during these talks that Robbins recalled George Balanchine having described a ballet choreographer as one “who dares to get his fingertips on that world where there are no names for things.”
By the 1960s, recognizing that dance on television was entering into a time “when even TV commercials need a choreographer” as he put it, Robbins decried the lack of a proper dance archive. He helped fix that problem with his ongoing financial support of what eventually became the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where so much of his choreography may be viewed today. In his foreword to A Bibliography of Dancing (1936), John Martin wrote, “Reading about the dance is highly unsatisfactory, but not nearly so unsatisfactory as not reading about it." So it is with viewing dance on television—even the works of Jerome Robbins. To view them live, as intended, is best. Not always possible, there is still the opportunity to view his work for the small screen as intended.