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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Jerome Robbins' choreography honored in 'On the Town,' 'King and I,' more

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in "The King

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in "The King and I." Credit: Paul Kolnik

The most influential director-choreographer of the season died in 1998. The spirit hovering over the American musical theater right now did not create a new work for Broadway since 1964. Except for a retrospective of his greatest-hits in 1989, this icon of the commercial theater spent the last big chunk of his career in the ballet world.

Surely, I am not the only one thinking a lot about Jerome Robbins these days.

The revival of "On the Town," the musical comedy that marked his Broadway debut as a choreographer in 1944, is in its seventh month at the Lyric Theatre. "The King and I," which Robbins choreographed in 1951, opened in a smash revival at the Lincoln Center Theater last month.

New choreographers have redesigned the steps -- Joshua Bergasse for "On the Town," Christopher Gattelli for "King and I." But the shape, the humanity and dance-driven momentum of the storytelling still have the mark of the master who also directed and/or choreographed such landmarks as "West Side Story," "Gypsy" and even "Peter Pan."

And next season, Bartlett Sher, director of this splendid "King and I," will stage a revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," Robbins' final show, which he directed and choreographed in 1964. Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter, in his Broadway debut, will be in the hot seat, trying to design new dances without losing the beloved trademarks of the original.

And then there is the show Robbins did not create, "An American in Paris." Gene Kelly left his stamp on the 1951 Gershwin movie as star and choreographer, of course. But this extraordinary new musical, only loosely based on the film, is the one to which the Robbins name is being repeatedly linked.

The power in charge is Christopher Wheeldon, first a dancer and then a choreographer with The Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet -- the same company where Robbins, who became ballet master in 1972, worked until he died at 79.

"American in Paris" is Wheeldon's first Broadway show. As director and choreographer, the British artist has made the most thrilling dance-driven musical since Twyla Tharp's wordless "Movin' Out" in 2002.

But this one is also a genuine book musical, an old-fashioned form in a new package, uniting storytelling and sweeping dance innovation in a show both emotionally complex and simply entertaining. At the risk of putting an impossible burden on Wheeldon, could this exuberant work be a calling card for a career that continues the Robbins legacy?

"Jerome Robbins was a huge influence in my career as a choreographer," says Wheeldon when asked about the creative link. "He was the last living great choreographer of his generation. I moved to New York to dance for him at the New York City Ballet. . . . He looked for artists that dug deeper than just the steps. He wanted us to dance like actors."

As an aspiring choreographer, Wheeldon says he believes "there was no better way to study than from within a Robbins ballet. You would learn that a simple gesture, a reach could say a thousand things, that the snap of two fingers could suggest the anticipation of love." He talks about the "resonance and tension" in Robbins' simplest movements. "Yet quite often, it's the stillness between the movement where the real story lies."

Christopher Gattelli pays similar homage when talking about his work on "The King and I," which includes the elegantly adorable "March of the Siamese Children" and the inspired Siam-meets-America ballet-within-a-play, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas."

"His fingerprints are all over the show," says Gattelli. "To use the base of his contribution and then be able to expand it, reimagine it and add my own fingerprints to the show, based on Bart's new vision, has been a complete honor."

"On the Town" was Robbins' first Broadway show. It is also the Broadway debut for Joshua Bergasse, best known as the choreographer of NBC's "Smash." Since there is no tape or other record of the original, the influence is less specific than an aesthetic goal -- admittedly a somewhat "daunting" one, says Bergasse.

"The way to honor Robbins is to make sure that the storytelling is there throughout, that the characters dance with a sense of humanity," says Bergasse, who, when asked whether Robbins was an inspiration or an intimidation, picks inspiration -- to "dance as characters . . . not dance like dancers."

Before Robbins did this World War II, sailors-on-leave musical, he had already created "Fancy Free," a dance for Ballet Theatre (the American in the name was added years later) that beautifully distilled much the same story into about 20 minutes.

The only other artifact from the original is the medley recreated, through memories of the few remaining dancers, for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," the 1989 Tony-winning anthology he put together.

The show, his return to musical theater after 25 years in the ballet world, was a stirring, if bittersweet history lesson at the end of the '80s mega-musical spectacles, a reminder of a time when people moved -- not just chandeliers.

Robbins, like the late Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse, began as a gifted dancer, then a choreographer, then a director -- which means he knew, in his muscles, how to make an entire show move from the inside. Unlike Fosse, Robbins had no trademark movements. He made movement that felt spontaneous, as if dreamed up on the spot by the characters.

George Balanchine, his late New York City Ballet colleague, worked fast and easy but made it look formal. Robbins sweated out every step, but his best looked natural, funny, friendly.

I remember thinking that "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" felt like a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of the Broadway spirit. Who knows? Perhaps the time for another Jerome Robbins' Broadway is now.

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