Jerome Robbins: Letters From a Young Artist Trying to Make It In New York
When a Dance Icon Could Barely Land An Audition
October 28, 1939, 4am (diary entry)
I have found my faith. I am ready to declare myself. At once I have found the purpose and the spine of all I shall do and the regulation of my life. My religion shall become as fanatical as a devout priest’s can be, and there shall never pass a day that I will forget at least three prayers to my religion. I am taking on a pledge as important as a vow. My sole purpose is declared. My rising eating living loving sleeping shall all be affected by my faith. I shall be firm straight and even cruel to be faithful. I SHALL DANCE. Yes . . . I shall dance. Say it over and over and over to infinatum [sic]. I shall dance I shall dance . . . I will live to dance, eat to dance, sleep to dance. My classes shall be my daily worship and workshop. Every moment shall be devoted to these purposes. When my rests come I shall love and live them with as much ecstasy as ever but my most pleasure will come from denying myself for my dancing, and even greater pleasure will come of the harvesting of my work. I shall wear something around my neck as Christians wear crosses to always be aware of my religion. I have now the object of my faith. I have a vessel in which to store my beliefs and which shall hold them as long as I know it will.
June 24, 1986
When you are young, ambitious to be in theater, and without work, all auditions appear like rescue ships on the horizon when you are shipwrecked on a deserted island. The ships are not so far off and may come close—close enough to call out to, perhaps rescue you from this unbearable isolation and set you up in the world again.
You have, from the distance, no idea of what kind of ship it is or where it is headed. As it gets closer and you can read some signs your fantasies begin. Yes, your life will change, yes, you will be back in the real world, yes yes yes—everything will alter once you have been rescued. One can imagine the food, clothes, comfort, company, but most of all the unbelievable change that will happen in being recognized as a person, an acceptable part of that outside world, no longer an immigrant.
So, as the time draws near, the hopes and anxieties increase. You are to turn up at the Majestic Theatre at 12 noon. What kind of show is it? Who’s doing it? The grapevine gossip supplies clues. And off goes your imagination. Do they want tap? How much? You can get through a time step, a Welsh clog, a slim-slam, but it’s really a fake. Do they want tall boys? (Tough shit—I’m 5′7.) Do they want ballet dancers? (Hardly ever, but in those days occasionally.) Do you know anyone connected—to give you at least more of a hint about that?
How many days away—how many classes can you take—is it so early you won’t be able to warm up properly? What to wear? The big question. Pants, tights, shorts, shoes, ballet slippers? Something eye-catching like a red bandanna or a blue belt? Do they want older (wear glasses)? Will you be asked to sing (rare in those days, as there were usually 16 dancers and the same number of singers)? Is it a big show? A period show? And most of all, please God, am I good enough, will I appear attractive enough, tall enough, talented enough? And as the day grows nearer the more the fantasies and expectations mount. A job—a job—a job as a dancer—a job in a Broadway show—oh dream beyond believability. How the stakes would rise—a breadwinner, able to get free from the anxious nervous economic fears and strictures of the family.
Imagine being free—able to perhaps rent a furnished room, buy your own clothes, pay for classes instead of being a janitor for them, to not watch so closely how much is spent for each mouthful you eat, to be able to take a streetcar or a bus instead of having to walk up the palisades, or from the river to 5th Avenue and back. And the part too incredibly exciting to even think about—being a part of the world of theater—a dancer in a show, and being a part of the making of it. Imagine—on Broadway—in a show—legitimate. Oh how the shipwrecked yearns, needs, craves rescue. See me, see me, help me—pick me!!!
It all turns out differently.
That morning you get up early, do a barre, do all the studying you can, do as much jumping as possible in your room, pick your dancing outfit, and pick the street clothes to be seen in, in case they see you dressed. Breakfast is brief—stomach too tight. Gulping your tension down, you walk down the slope of the Palisades, take the ferry across the river. As you glide towards the city it looms bigger and bigger, growing giant-like until the boat unloads you . . .
You walk across 42nd Street to the theater district . . . When you get to the alley leading to the backstage door of the theater a half hour ahead, the alley is already crammed with aspirants. You do not see anyone you know. Almost all are taller, securer, casually bantering with each other. [But] all eyes anxiously check the closed stage door. All ears strain for mentions of what is thought to be needed—all rumors are put into the anxiety hopper. It’s hot, and at 11:30 the sun is beating down into the alley.
Suddenly a stir goes through the crowd. Something’s up. Heads swing to the shadowy stage door tucked under a grid of fire escapes. It’s too far away to see what’s happening but the word spreads. Twenty-five at a time—a stand-up.
Which means they just line you up and look at you. If they like you (if you seem to be the kind they need), you’ll come back later for the audition. The group moves slowly forward . . .
Closer. Closer. Finally among those on the steps . . . Closer. You’ll be among the next batch. And then push—
You get in. Concrete floor, radiators, dark grey, dusty, brown . . . Through a hall, through a big iron door, and it’s suddenly so dark after the down-beating sunlight that you can’t tell where you are. But hands are ushering you into a vast dark hole. And you’re there. In the line. You can vaguely make out some men in the distance. There is a little pause, and a man passing behind you says, OK, thank you, and they’re ushering you onward and through another dark short hall and through a door where blast, you’re out on the street, on the other side of the theater, in the harsh daylight.
I can’t remember how I passed the rest of those days . . . I remember how bitter the taste in my mouth was, how hard it was to swallow my pain.
To: Company Management, Ballet Theatre
65 West 56th Street
April 26 
Thank you very much for your card informing me of the auditions on the 29th. As you know I am greatly interested in joining the company—but unfortunately I will be out of town at that time for two weeks—returning May 12th, when I will open with “Keep Off the Grass.”
However, I would gladly leave the show to join and rehearse for the fall season and few summer dates.
I might refer you to Mr. Loring—or Misses Lyon or Konrad, or any member of your immediate ensemble, if you wish to hear about my work.
And I would be deeply gratefull [sic] if an audition could possibly be arranged during the week of the 15th May when the show opens here in town.
Again may I thank you for the card and impress upon you my sincerity in wishing to work with the company. I hope this letter will reach the proper hands with regards to a later audition.
Yours truly, Jerome Robbins
To: Donald Saddler
Hotel La Salle, Boston Sat night
Just a note. Got here awfully tired & have been rehearsing since.
How’s the room working out? Rehearsals? Classes? David probably told you about the card I got about auditions for Ballet Theatre. If you can speak to Dolin for me—& refer me to Loring, Lyons, Conrad. I tackled Pleasant myself on Friday morning.
Tell me what happened at auditions—& spread my regards around (not too generously as I may need them later)—& take care of yourself. If you get a chance, write.
Best regards, J
Can you possibly send up my pair of blue tights hanging in the kitchen closet? It’s gotten mighty cold up here!
To: Donald Saddler
Hotel La Salle, Boston Tuesday morn.
It’s the final dress rehearsal before we open tonight & I have loads of time. We do 1 number in the 1st act and 4 in the second & I know (I’ve seen to it) that I can’t be found. The sets & costumes are very good—in fact wonderful. Karson has done a terrific job & I don’t understand why they didn’t get him for any of the “ballet theater” things.
The costumes the boys wear are stinky for changes. All stiff shirts & collars [&] padding: all the wrong stuff for a summer show in NY & we’re pretty sure it’ll run.
How are you getting on in the room? Are you finding it convenient & comfortable? There are plenty of rumors about 2 more weeks in Philly so you don’t have to worry about moving if you like my place.
If we stay out on the road, I guess that puts my chances of getting into the company further away—all of which leaves me pretty discouraged. We’re all pretty knocked out & tired & I really can’t find the strength right now to work & do a bar[re]. We work until daylight—right thru the night. One morning instead of going to bed till noon I walked all around the town—the harbor, etc.—but although I enjoyed it I was too tired & had a hard time getting back to the hotel.
The show opened—got good reviews and we’re off. (Whee!) It was good to be performing again, even this stuff, and I am almost getting to like the numbers. Now I must thank you profusely. First of all—David wrote & said you’d spoken to Dolin for me. Thanks a million-fold for that, Don. I really appreciate & [am] grateful to you.
Next, thanks for sending the tights. Maybe now I’ll have more time to use them. (By the way, Marjorie got a swell notice in one paper & Balanchine was quoted as having said “she was better than his beloved Zorina”!!!! Can you imagine rolling-pins flying chez Balanchine.) (Dirt—spread it, kid, spread it.)
And finally, thanks loads for the telegram. It was so kind of you & Dave & it made me feel so good inside.
You’ve really been a hell of a swell friend, Don—& I don’t know if it means anything to you—but I think a hell of a lot of you as a friend & person:—glad I met you. (Stuff & stuff—hard to say, but you know what I mean.)
Every night after the show (2 nights) Harriet & I have explored that part of Boston known as “Beacon Hill.” It is so charming—Pure American, early Colonial—By the time we get there it’s cleared of people & the old street lamps make it look just like a “set.”
How are rehearsals & classes. How’d the auditions go. Who was there, etc.
How’ve you been? What’s the latest rumors & dirt in the “Ballet Theater.”
Well—write me soon, huh—I’d like very much to hear from you—and take care of yourself & dance like mad.
To: Richard Pleasant
Dear Mr. Pleasant—
I stopped by today to see if I could get some information on the “summer” work I auditioned for Friday. I am working now, and would have to give my notice in as soon as possible if I want to do the summer dates. I can’t proceed to give my job up until I know what performing with your company entails. I’d like particularly to work (classes) with Mr. Tutor [sic], Mr. Dolin, & Mr. Loring as it is not for a “job’s” sake that I would give up the show. These are some of the questions I wanted to ask.
How soon will rehearsals start?
How soon will I be able to take classes?
How long will the time be between the summer dates and fall rehearsals? What kind of contract will be offered?
Your secretary told me that a meeting is to be held to discuss those particulars. I wonder if you could find out if I may be considered to be taken in as a regular member of the company—as Mr. Nillo & Mr. Saddler etc. for the rest of summer.
All these questions sound very forward and taking a lot for granted. I apologize. I have been trying to become a member of the company for a long time now & with another job on my hands I want to be careful not to be left with neither.
I hope you will consider my problem.
Sincerely, Jerry Robbins
I’ll stop by again tomorrow pm.
Excerpted from Jerome Robbins, by Himself by Jerome Robbins, edited and with commentary by Amanda Vaill. Copyright © 2019 The Robbins Rights Trust. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.