“On The Town,” on board

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Jerome Robbins’s centenary commemorated with a performance on the Intrepid


  • Jerome Robbins, center, on the set of the 1961 film version of "West Side Story. Robbins, who directed is pictured with, from left, Jay Norman, George Chakiris, Jay Norman and Eddie Verso. Photo: Photofest

  • A 2014 production of “On the Town” at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. Photo: Joan Marcus

What could be more New York than seeing theater in an immersive, historic setting? Such an intoxicating and rare pairing will come to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum for one night as acclaimed choreographer Josh Bergasse restages the opening of the classic musical “On The Town” aboard a military ship on Thursday.

The performance is not to be missed. Co-organized with the Jerome Robbins’ Foundation to commemorate the centennial of the dance auteur’s birth, the staging will be followed by a panel discussion about Robbins and his legacy. Bergasse will be joined by Grover Dale, an original cast member of West Side Story and co-director with Robbins of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway;” Amanda Green, Tony Award–nominated lyricist and composer and daughter of playwright Adolph Green; and Daniel Ulbricht, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. The panel will be moderated by Amanda Vaill, author of “Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins,” and will revolve around his timeless artistry.

The Intrepid performance and panel is one of several events this year in New York to celebrate the many contributions Robbins made to American culture. Robbins’s work spanned genres from ballet to theater to film, influencing generations of dance artists.

Despite numerous biographies written about him, Robbins’s life, like New York itself, is shrouded in mystery and contradiction. A closeted bisexual who identified as a self-hating Jew, Robbins helped create a queer reflexive version of masculinity and femininity, at once subversive and progressive. Whether it be dancing Navy boys (“Fancy Free,” “On the Town”), Puerto Rican gang members (“West Side Story”) or candle-balancing Jews in Russia (“Fiddler on the Roof”), Robbins always managed to capture the polyphonic nature of identity, one as complex and intersectional as New York itself.

The inspiration for the Intrepid performance came when Ellen Silbermann, the museum’s first director of public programs, was approached by the Robbins’ foundation. Silbermann immediately recalled the recent Broadway revival of “On the Town” and proposed staging the opening of the show on the historic aircraft carrier.

The Intrepid was in use as a military ship in 1944 when “On The Town” premiered, marking the Broadway debut of not only Robbins, but also of composer Leonard Bernstein and the lyricist/librettist duo of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Best remembered for the 1950 MGM film shot on location in the city, “On The Town” is a period piece of a decidedly different time, when America was associated with an infectious sense of possibility, positivity and patriotism.

When asked about the connection between military history and Robbins’s work as the inventor of a new dance vocabulary, Silbermann mused that the root of Robbins’ choreography derived from the rhythms of everyday people, people like “sailors in World War II in the street being around, [from] his experience as an immigrant, [from] the energy of New York City,” and that it was these typically New York things “that formed the essence of his choreography.”

It is the essence of the real, the everyday that made Robbins’s dance so inventive, fusing ballet with more colloquial forms of movement.

Robbins’s complex portraits of the moving body have stood the test of time, as exemplified by the fact that his original work is rarely changed when performed in revival, not the norm for most theater productions. Bergasse’s choreography, though “original” in some ways, retains the essence of Robbins’s in all its subsequent iterations, with The New York Times’s Ben Brantley stating in 2014 that Bergasse “maintains this rare feeling of idiosyncrasy in harmony” that retains “the Robbins spirit, but stamped it with his own vivid signature.”

The Intrepid Museum’s public programming, begun four years ago, aims to teach history in an entertaining fashion. This program should allow Robbins’s spirit to fuse with Bergasse’s singular stamp and get the two into conversation with one another. When Silbermann was chosen to run the Intrepid Museum’s programs, she made clear that she wished to engage with the arts to “get people to feel rather than just listen to people explaining things.”

With this in mind, Silbermann planned the Intrepid’s first late-night event, a restaging of a germinal piece of music written for and by the legendary Kronos Quartet, originally created as a musical statement against America’s participation in the Vietnam War. The museum also co-produced, along with The Public Theatre, a series of recreations of the “Blue Prince Specials” musicals written during World War II written by, performed by and created for members of the U.S. military.

Such programming demonstrates that the arts are always integral to how we experience our world. It also reminds us that history is preface to tomorrow.

What Thursday’s performance and panel symbolize is the fusing of feeling and fact, of history and high art. It is this particular synthesis of the practical with the fantastical that makes for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As the sun sets on August 9 along New York Harbor, audiences will watch history come alive, on location, creating a love letter not only to New York, but to the American dream writ large.

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