At City Ballet, Jerome Robbins Remembered As a Guy You Wouldn't Mind Seeing Fall Off the Stage

Robbins in 1990. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Last night, New York City Ballet celebrated its spring gala, honoring the late Jerome Robbins with a program of his works, notably West Side Story Suite. A short film showing archival footage of Jerry directing that ballet brought back memories of the cantankerous choreographer. "I feel like we knew someone who worked on his last production?" Ethan Hawke asked friend and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman (whose Things We Want Hawke directed last fall). "Yeah, Jerome Robbins' Broadway," Sherman replied. "I heard [Robbins] was walking backwards in front of the entire company, and he was approaching the lip of the stage, and nobody said a fucking word." "Nobody warned him?!" Hawke exclaimed. "And basically everyone was like, If no one says a word, they can't fire all of us," said Sherman. The pair cracked up. "And no one said, 'Hey Jerry, you're about to fall into the pit.' That's gotta suck!'"

But Robbins had his charming moments as well. "Jerry and I used to dance when he came to California," Lauren Bacall said. "We'd go to someone's house, have a band and a fake dance floor. I was his favorite dancing partner!" Lesley Stahl told a story about her friend, former ballerina Melinda Roy, that perfectly summed up Robbins's mix of tyranny and warmth toward his dancers. Roy had been trying to get Robbins to quit smoking and caught him lighting up backstage. "If you're gonna tell me 'no,' you have to really tell me 'no,'" Robbins told Roy. "You can do better than that!" According to Stahl, Roy "bent down, took a deep breath, hurled out a 'noooo!'" Robbins replied, "Dance like that." —Rebecca Milzoff

Related: A Brilliant Tyrant [NYM]