julia foulkes

Sailors, Fancy Free

Exhibition Object and Text, Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story (Kellen Gallery, Shelia Johnson Design Center, The New School, 2013)

In the ballet Fancy Free three sailors burst onto the stage, liberated from duty for a short leave. Leaning against a lamppost outside a bar, they wait for the city to happen. A woman passes, and action begins. Three ply their charms on her, one tires of the game, and another woman saunters by. Competition grows between the three men for two women, resulting in dueling solos. The fight amongst the sailors takes over, the women realize they have been forgotten and stride off, and the men find themselves where they began, waiting for something to happen. A third woman saunters by.

This 1944 ballet inaugurated a life-long collaboration between choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein. The ballet became a musical, On the Town, then a movie with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, which debuted a new New York anthem in which the “Bronx is up and the Battery’s down” and “people ride in a hole in the ground.” In this story, Robbins and Bernstein had captured the desperate need for relief in a war-weary city, a year before a passionate kiss between a sailor and a nurse in Times Square symbolized the end of the war in a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Sailors had emerged as the quintessential New York tourists, symbols of patriotism and respite.

But sailors in the city narrate other stories too. For Fancy Free, Robbins was inspired by the paintings of Paul Cadmus, in which beefy sailors ogle both women and men on the waterfront. Robbins’ and Bernstein’s own homosexual inclinations underlay their buoyant ballet that played up heterosexual desire but reinforced male camaraderie. In fact, the freewheeling sailors in Fancy Free perhaps better tell the story of the intertwining of homosexuality, the military, and Broadway. Military service in World War II provided a meeting ground for gay men that allowed them to explore their desire in collective if covert form. And gay men dominated Broadway by the mid-20th century, even though they still masked that desire on stage. It was not until 1984 when La Cage Aux Folles pulled off the mask and celebrated gay love. That same year, for the first time and now ever since, summer started in New York with Fleet Week in May and was in full force by the Gay Pride parade in June. Sailors and gay men paraded from the stages of Broadway to the streets of New York, fancy and free.

Featured image: Granger, Ballet Fancy Free C1970. Jerry Orr and Ellen Everett performing in an American Ballet Theatre production of ‘Fancy Free,’ choreographed by Jerome Robbins, c1970. (cropped) Fine Art America, 31 August 2014.