Fancy Free: The Birth of an American Classic
By Allen Robertson
Allen Robertson discusses the history of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein's iconic Fancy Free. The work is one of three works making up Houston Ballet's American at Heart program, running March 11-21.
Both choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein were virtually unknown to the theater-going public on April 18, 1944. By the morning of April 19 these new kids on the block were overnight sensations, the proverbial talk of the town, stars of the brightest magnitude.
The opening night of their first collaboration, Fancy Free, would go on to become one of the legendary milestones in American dance. Today, it still ranks as one of the most entertaining of ’em all.
So, what was the audience watching on April 18, 1944? It turns out that they were looking at themselves. They were outside a corner bar near Times Square, just two blocks up the street from the old Metropolitan Opera House, where the ballet was actually having its premiere.
With the first rat-a-tat-tat of the score three sailors who have been let loose on 24-hour shore leave, erupt onto the scene. They’re bound and determined to have themselves an unforgettable night on the town—and that, of course, means finding themselves some girls.
As luck would have it, their cherchez la femme antics manage to corral only two available gals. A big section of the ballet features each of the three guys showing off in a solo which he hopes will win him his date. The first solo is full of acrobatic hep-cat flash. The second sailor’s turn is the exact opposite—smooth, boyish, even naive. The last (danced by Robbins himself on opening night) has the swivel-hipped come-hither Latino allure of a rumba.
Unfortunately, when the girls can’t make a choice, all hell breaks loose. As the sailors swap punches the girls make a hasty exit. But equilibrium is soon restored and the ballet ends with the trio hightailing it down the street after yet another would-be available female.
No choreographer today would dream of devising characters and situations like these; of having sailors steal a woman’s handbag and pass it around like a football. Yet because of the good-natured manner of their fun and games we are able to see the joke. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that the girl herself is clearly being entertained by their clowning around.
The initial impact of Fancy Free must have been some kind of radical first for ballet audiences. There had already been a couple of phenomenally successful Americana ballets: Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid in 1938 and Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo in 1942. Both of them had scores by Aaron Copland (one of Bernstein’s mentors). But, both of these ballets were nostalgia fests, paeans to the opening up of the Wild West. And, just a year before Fancy Free, de Mille, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein, had re-written Broadway history with the frontier musical Oklahoma! In contrast, Fancy Free wasn’t sentimental in any way, shape, or form. Robbins and Bernstein were determined to capture their own moment in history, not recycle someone else’s memories.
Both men were only 25 at the time. Bernstein was beginning to make his mark as an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic when, just months before the Fancy Free premiere, and in an unexpectedly triumphant evening, he was drafted in at the last minute to replace ailing conductor Bruno Walter. In terms of Bernstein’s concert career, the rest was history.
Robbins had been dancing with Ballet Theatre since its inception in 1940 (the company didn’t change its name to American Ballet Theatre until 1957). He was happy to be performing, but as he once joked, "I never seemed to get out of boots, Russian bloomers, and a peasant wig." Small wonder then that he thought it was high time for Fancy Free to blow away all those heavy historical cobwebs.
It got put together in helter-skelter bits and pieces while Ballet Theatre was on a nationwide tour. Back in New York, Bernstein was mailing Robbins homemade records of the music he’d written the previous day. Fancy Free was created in an almost haphazard manner with rehearsal times and places grabbed in between performances. The cast worked in empty hotel ballrooms, in theater basements, and in one case even on the street. In 1980, when Fancy Free was first added to the New York City Ballet repertoire, Janet Reed, who had been one of the original cast members, told writer Tobi Tobias this anecdote:
“At one time—we were in Bloomington, Indiana, walking down the street on the way to the theater, and Jerry said, ‘I wonder what would happen if—’ and he described the girl running and suddenly jumping and the boy catching her. He just talked his image of it as we were walking. I let him walk on ahead a little ways and I said, ‘You mean like this?’ and I ran down the street and jumped at him. And he had to drop his bag and catch me. That’s in the pas de deux we did together.”
The spontaneity of that jump is just one of the many instances throughout Fancy Free where art and life fuse. This really was groundbreaking stuff.
Fancy Free set up its creators for life and would, a dozen years later, lead on to West Side Story. Of course before they got around to the Sharks and the Jets, Robbins and Bernstein had turned Fancy Free into a full-length Broadway musical called On the Town. This then became an Oscar-winning MGM movie with stars such as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller. (For the record, it was the first-ever musical to be shot on location in the streets of New York rather than on a soundstage in California).
Bart Cook, who staged Robbins’ giddy comedy The Concert for Houston Ballet in 2007, has returned to produce Fancy Free. In 1980, when Robbins staged Fancy Free for New York City Ballet, he cast the Utah-born Cook as one of the sailors. “It was always a great ballet to dance,” Cook remembers, “full of fun, full of joy, full of life.”
Houston Ballet's American at Heart consists of Robbins' Fancy Free, Balanchine's Apollo and Christopher Bruce’s Hush March 11-21.
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An American who has lived in Europe since 1982, Allen Robertson is a frequent contributor to publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He was the dance editor for Time Out London from 1984 until 2008.
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