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Originally published Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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"Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About" explores life of choreographer

"Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About" is the first full-length documentary about the man who choreographed "West Side Story," "Fiddler on a Roof," "The King and I," "Gypsy" and "On the Town." It airs on PBS Wednesday, Feb. 18.

Seattle Times movie critic

On TV

"Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About"

KCTS-9 at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18. For more information: ww.pbs.com/wnet/americanmasters.

More Robbins: Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform Robbins' "West Side Story Suite" as part of its Broadway Festival March 12-22, and "Dances at a Gathering" in its season-ending repertory program May 28-June 7. For more information, see www.pnb.org. SIFF Cinema will screen "West Side Story" March 15; for more information, see www.siff.net.

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In a jittery fragment of old film, a young man dances on a New York rooftop, whirling and jumping as he grins for the camera, bursting with confidence and possibility. He is Jerome Robbins, who would go on to have an unprecedented career in ballet and musical theater, but that day he was just a kid who loved to dance. "Art was like a tunnel to me," Robbins wrote of his youth. "At the end of the tunnel, I could see light."

"Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About," the first full-length documentary about this great American choreographer, explores his life and work — and the contradictions in both. He was a difficult taskmaster, reviled by some colleagues (a famous story is told in which Robbins, haranguing a cast, stepped backward on stage and fell into the orchestra pit — and nobody made a move to help him) and adored by others. He was a man routinely described as a genius who throughout his life struggled with profound insecurity about his talent. He named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 (because, the film tells us, he was fearful of being outed as a homosexual), and was haunted by the act for the rest of his life.

And yet this complex man, who died in 1998, could produce dances as light as a breeze. "Fancy Free," the sailor ballet, which first made his name in 1944, debuted in a ballet landscape filled with Russian formality and caused a sensation. "Something to Dance About" shows us footage of Robbins performing it with the original cast, then smoothly cuts to a more recent rendition; its all-American exuberance makes us think of that young man on the rooftop. We're shown snippets of his other great ballets, made during his many years at New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, with special focus on his lyrical masterpiece "Dances at a Gathering."

Footage of his Broadway triumphs is, unfortunately, less readily available (though a clip of Nancy Walker hilariously attempting pointe work in 1948's "Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!" is a gem), and the film often relies on the later movie versions of his work. But to browse his credits is to view Broadway history: "On the Town," "The King and I," "The Pajama Game," "Peter Pan," "Gypsy," and "West Side Story," which hit the Great White Way like a thunderclap. Like "Fancy Free," its young cast moved like ordinary people, with their slouchy walks and swinging arms suddenly blooming into dance.

Written by Amanda Vaill (who wrote a fine recent biography, "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins") and directed by Judy Kinberg, "Something to Dance About" intersperses its dance excerpts with a wealth of interviews with those who knew Robbins — writers, dancers, artistic colleagues, friends. Not all loved him; indeed, several still hold anger from encounters with Robbins decades ago. But most recognize that they crossed paths with a remarkable artist.

The film's great gift is its rare footage of Robbins himself dancing, in performance or in rehearsal (in one intriguing clip, we see him partnering Mikhail Baryshnikov to teach a pas de deux). Movement, it seemed, was the only place this troubled man found ease — and it became his gift to the world.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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