julia foulkes

Robbins’ New York Portraits

My remarks for the program on Robbins’ New York Portraits at the Library for the Performing Arts with Adrian Danchig-Waring, Justin Peck, and Ellen Bar.

The exhibition upstairs perhaps best reflects my thinking about the ties between Jerome Robbins and New York, but I thought I’d offer a few more specific to the study of New York. As I hope the exhibition proves, Robbins was quite the researcher, an observer of human habits and habitation. Since he lived his entire life in New York, inevitably that research included the city itself. In fact, I think artists such as Robbins deserve to be put alongside urban planners and policy makers, sociologists and architecture critics, for their ways of revealing how cities work.

Robbins created some of his most significant artworks in the era of urban renewal. During the 1950s and 60s, New York underwent dramatic change in infrastructure, demolishing swaths of low-rise buildings and replacing them with towers of residences and offices. Where we are sitting was one such swath. The Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Project was the largest federal project of the era; Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was considered the jewel in the midst of a 14-block re-imagining of the neighborhood with new apartment and office towers, a high school, and a campus for Fordham University law school.

West Side Story arrived in the middle of this debate about urban renewal and encapsulated the era’s aspirations and continuing restrictions. In New York this debate is often conveyed as a battle between Robert Moses–with his birds-eye view focused on circulation, especially of cars, and of tying the city to regional network from Long Island to CT and NJ–and that of Jane Jacobs, with her focus on the street-level sidewalk ballet. West Side Story encompassed both these extremes–the film prologue goes from that birds-eye view to zoom into the street–and it did not endorse one perspective over the other. Instead the story insists on their mutuality, on the grand vision and aspirations of seeing the possibilities of the city almost as symbol, from above, and the confinement and restrictions that make up the violent, tragic, passionate daily battle of the streets.

The debate over urban renewal was about who and what mattered in the city–cars or people, economic trade or safety, government authority or neighborhood resistance. But it also encompassed new ways of apprehending how the city worked. A 1960 book by the urbanist Kevin Lynch, Image of the City, captured the attention to visuality. Lynch argued that there are common design elements that order our understanding of where we are—paths, edges, nodes, districts, and landmarks. New York City with its grid makes these elements very clear: Broadway is a path; Union Square a node; a railroad track or a river an edge. And that legibility, Lynch believes, allows for more individual and collective action and expression. If we can visualize–know–the world we live in, we can act in and upon it.

Robbins expressed his interest in and attention to visuality most in his desire to be behind the camera–in photographing and, especially, in directing for film and television. In the prologue of the film West Side Story, Robbins set up the battle between the Jets and the Sharks through the use of shots that literally whipped from one gang to the other, speeding up time as well as animosity so that confrontation was inevitable.

Visual knowledge of the city abetted spatial knowledge. Knowing as seeing amplified moving. Twenty years after Lynch, the sociologist William Whyte took this idea even further in his examination of “the social life of small urban spaces.” Whyte conducted a precise study of how people move and interact in the plaza of the Seagram’s building by monitoring their action on cameras. He concluded that people came to plazas not to escape the streets but to partake in public interaction in a more controlled way–the number one activity is people looking at people. Good public spaces are ones that encourage that. They draw people into them with no barriers to entry and many opportunities to sit—he advocated for movable chairs to optimize the possibilities. He also observed how people walk through a plaza, acutely aware of others but not necessarily constricted by them, timing their paths in such a way so as to just avoid collisions. Much like the opening act of Robbins’ Glass Pieces.

Underlying this discussion of urban design was a reckoning with the fact that we live amidst strangers. Many scholars who examined the phenomenon of strangers in the city were refugees from Europe, acutely attuned to conditions of exile and unfamiliarity. Their extreme experience made them notice that the city encouraged an orientation to time rather than place. That is, unlike rooted, smaller communities where familiarity defined roles and habits defined by the past, cities created a world of the constant present. This orientation facilitated–even dictated–change. All of us are strangers in the city, even if we have been here a long time. There are more people we do not know than we know. The grid may provide a legible, knowable space, but we exist in it among strangers.

E.B. White picked up on this condition of New York life in his famous 1949 essay “Here is New York” which begins: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Robbins was bestowed with these gifts, I think. He was also inclined to them: an introvert, an analyzer, a maker. And Robbins’ loneliness and privacy did not lead to invisibility, as for others such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and people of color more generally. Robbins’ loneliness spurred introspection, conducted in the privacy of his home or a dance studio but also in the public spaces of the city–shooting movie footage of people enjoying Central Park, writing stories of friends on rooftops, visiting galleries and museums and libraries. He searched for himself amidst strangers.

Robbins’ wandering in the city was not an unusual experience in and of itself but unusual in how much he created from it. In his ballets, especially, we see that searching of the individual in and through a group, perhaps friends, perhaps strangers who become friends. In Opus Jazz, it’s the group that creates a circle of meaning; dancers perform for each other and respond to one another, a world focused in on itself. Robbins absorbed these conversations about urban life–the experience of destruction and construction in urban renewal; attention to visuality, spatiality, strangers, loneliness–and re-made them into movement. There are many, multiple ways to understand his ballets and musicals but I find one thought he wrote both compelling and poignant: “The moment of encounter, if carefully analyzed, could be taken as a model, a metaphor of all that followed.”

Of course a choreographer is going to be concerned with visuality, spatiality, relations between individuals, in and out of group formations–and is going to prize the present moment. But Robbins met his moment in that he recognized–whether overtly or not–that these concerns were also playing out around him where he lived, on streets not just on stages. The encounter between Robbins and New York was a model and metaphor for so much that followed.

(Photograph by Costas Cacaroukas, NY Export: Opus Jazz, New York City Ballet)