Fancy Free

  • Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
  • Music: Leonard Bernstein
  • Costumes: Kermit Love
  • Lighting: Jennifer Tipton - recreated by Burke Brown
  • Set Design: Oliver Smith
  • World Premiere: Ballet Theatre, April 18, 1944
  • PBT Performance Date: May 4-6, 2018

Program Notes

Fancy Free was Robbins’ and Bernstein’s first work together. A young dancer with Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre), Robbins had managed to get approval to choreograph a ballet (his first) for the company. He’d come up with a timely idea, inspired by the painting “The Fleet’s In!,” by Paul Cadmus – three sailors on shore leave palling around World War II-era New York City. No composer stepped up to take on the project until someone suggested Bernstein, whose star was already on the rise. When the two met in the summer of 1943, both just 24 years old, they instantly clicked. Bernstein hummed a melody he’d jotted down that morning, Robbins loved it, and Fancy Free was born.

Robbins’ main job at the time was dancing, not choreographing, and with Ballet Theatre’s heavy tour schedule he had to create the ballet on the fly, between stops, on the tour bus, in hotel lobbies, and on the street as the dancers walked to and from the theater. He kept in touch with Bernstein in New York by mail, sending him notes about mood and tone for different sections, and Bernstein sent back homemade records so that Robbins could hear what he was creating. The two worked and tweaked until the last minute, and finally, on April 18, 1944, Fancy Free premiered in New York. At the end, when the audience demanded an astonishing 22 curtain calls, everyone knew something remarkable had just happened.

In the ballet Robbins and Bernstein (and designer Oliver Smith) capture a moment in wartime New York that they – and the original audience – were all living in. We feel that era the minute the curtain goes up: Smith’s spare and wistful set design and Bernstein’s jazzy score create an atmosphere that is (to this day) undeniably American. Robbins’ first try at professional choreography signaled his genius for natural, spontaneous movement that adeptly reveals character and relationships. The sailors’ gestures transmit both the easy warmth of their camaraderie as well as their individual personalities. At the heart of the ballet are their solos – a dance-off of classically-based ballet variations that are also brilliant character studies. Robbins seamlessly blended ballet’s structure with everyday movement, with the rhythm and form of popular dance styles, and with his own keen and funny observations about friendship and human connections. In a way Fancy Free set American ballet free, with a new concept of what belonged in the art form.