This is going to be a short post on the American Masters DVD "Something to Dance About" - a documentary about choreographer Jerome Robbins's life based on the biography by Amanda Vaill. I'd watched it some time ago and when I decided to watch it again, realized it was even more gripping than I remembered.
Quite incredibly, I'd forgotten that Robbins had testified in front of the HUAC committee until I watched again the interview of Madeline Lee Giffords, who was specifically named by Robbins in his testimony. (Robbins was reluctant to testify but worried that his homosexuality would be revealed if he didn't do it and finally caved in.) And of course when I saw Lee Giffords on video in her bright red dress, full of dignity, with tears in her eyes when she recounts those harrowing years of the early 1950s, I remembered being stunned the first time I saw the video. I also remembered her red dress and her teary-eyed poise when she said she'd been told that Robbins was dogged by his testimony for the rest of his life, and naturally she hoped he was, because after he named them the Giffords didn't receive a single phone call for three months, so intense was their friends' fear of HUAC. And the pain in her eyes was so obvious, fifty years later. Lee Giffords passed away in 2008, ten years after Robbins and eighteen years after her husband, whom Robbins also named in his testimony.
The fact that Robbins named names so that he could continue to share his talent with the world is tragic, although I'm not sure if it continues to taint his reputation today. People don't really mention that about him anymore when one of his choreographies is being revived, now that he has been dead for seventeen years. We all wish we wouldn't throw others to the lions to save ourselves in situations like those. But the risk for Robbins of losing his ability to share his enormous talent with the world (as was the case for Elia Kazan, another great artist who named names) is what led him to testify. Perhaps people not as burning with an urge to share their talent with the world can more easily take the decision not to testify, in spite of the risk of the blacklist.
Zero Mostel, made famous in Fiddler on the Roof, who would have been 100 this years but passed away of an aneurysm in 1977, was a close friend of the Giffords and resented Robbins for his HUAC testimony. But even before HUAC, it seems that Robbins had complicated relationships with the people who worked with him or for him. Put another way, he could be really mean with his dancers to get the best out of them (the documentary has concrete, specific examples of his meanness), and in that respect he reminded me of Steve Jobs as described in the biography by Walter Isaacson. It seems that genius can go together with utter meanness and selfishness. Yet, there is no doubt that Robbins was indeed a Genius with a capital G - the greatest American-born choreographer of the 20th century, to whom we owe epoch-making movies such as West Side Story and musicals like Gypsy and the wonderful ballet Fancy Free.
I particularly enjoyed seeing how dedicated Robbins was to his art and how committed to excellence he remained throughout his career. His philosophy was (I paraphrase) that talent was pointless if one didn't work tirelessly to bring that gift forward. Robbins was a complex and flawed character, and perhaps not a role model; yet, this message is as timely today as it was at the height of Robbins's fame.
Below is an excerpt of the documentary, including a few moments of Fancy Free: