A driven perfectionist, choreographer-director Jerome Robbins was startlingly prolific. But in pushing at the creative boundaries of ballet and Broadway, he was also maddeningly cruel a maestro of insult and innuendo. Complex and colorful, he snares the biographical spotlight in Dance with Demons. Written by Greg Lawrence, who knows his way around the dance floor (he teamed with ballerina Gelsey Kirkland for her memoir Dancing on My Grave), this is the first account of his professional triumphs and off-stage travails. Robbins, who died in 1998 at age 79, grew up loving dance, taking lessons as a child (to the irritation of his father). As a teenager, he was influenced by the pioneering modern dance artists of the 1930s, who explored political and social themes. Then came a project under choreographer Antony Tudor, whose ballet rehearsals resembled psychodramas, complete with Stanislavski acting techniques and Freudian insight. Robbins' own ballets would reverberate with Tudor's influence. One of Robbins' most famous works, West Side Story, was also one of his most audacious. He once talked of doing a Jewish-Catholic take on Romeo and Juliet, but after reading headlines about juvenile delinquency, Robbins turned West Side Storyinto the saga of the Sharks and the Jets, and Tony and Maria. From the night of its 1957 premiere, West Side Story was a monster hit. Thanks to his troublesome behavior during the making of the West Side Story movie, Hollywood eluded the man whose work on Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof and The King and I garnered him five Tonys and two Academy Awards. Robbins was further hampered by his personal relationships. In an era in which homosexuality was taboo, he was involved with men as well as women. Dance with Demons is full of fascinating quotes from Robbins' associates and wonderful minutiae about the ballet world. Hundreds of the choreographer's colleagues spoke with Greg Lawrence for this book, and the interviews help flesh out his lively portrait of Robbins. An engaging biography of a complex man, Dance with Demons brings Jerome Robbins center stage right where he belongs.

Pat Broeske writes from California.

 

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