I never met Jerome Robbins but I feel like I’ve been living with him for the last few years. What he left behind–the letters, diaries, ballets, musicals, photographs, film footage–makes possible that conundrum. And this library and the extraordinary people who make it live have created a home for Robbins and for people like me.
The people who do not know Robbins were on my mind as I curated this exhibition. If you had not ever heard of him before, what would you want to know? There are favorite ballets, favorite musicals, tales of friends and foes. But I find his prolific creativity, research, and reflection to be most unusual. The theme of New York–his home and his muse–uncovers these parts of Robbins’ life. The city was the meeting ground between self and world. It was where he observed others–by writing, drawing, photographing, filming them. It was where he researched how people moved and danced in social gatherings of gangs in Spanish Harlem and Orthodox Jewish weddings. But it was also where he looked at people’s shoes in Central Park, as in the footage in the exhibition displays; where he drew the resigned faces of people waiting at a hospital clinic; where he remarked on the rising inflation of the city when he was charged for hot water for a cup of tea.
Sometimes there is a clear connection between what Robbins observed and what appears in a particular dance–West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof may be the best examples. But, most often, there is not a direct correlation. Instead, his research, observation, and documentation are about how we inhabit this place, at this time. People often attribute to Robbins’ choreography a deeply human quality, one fleshed out and thought through by the intricate relationships between people on stage. In NY Export: Opus Jazz and Dances at a Gathering, it’s as if the dancers are dancing most of all to each other, rather than any other audience. He re-created his own world of observation, encounter, and reflection on stage.
It’s this legacy of Robbins that I wanted to inspire in the exhibition. We do not have to be artists to gain something from this kind of attention and curiosity about the places we inhabit, to enrich our lives by making meaning of where we are. May we go out into the city around us with Robbins’ level of investigation, focus, and imagination–and make something of it.
Remarks upon the opening of Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York at New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. My blogpost for the NYPL’s Dance Division can be found here. An interview about the exhibition with the Gotham Center for New York City history can be found here. Review here.