Young, fit, and ‘Fancy Free’

On an April evening in 1944, a young dancer from Portland made history as a star of Jerome Robbins' first ballet. What it felt like to be there.

In this excerpt from her new book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, dance critic and frequent ArtsWatch contributor Martha Ullman West writes about Oregon native Reed’s crucial role in the creation of an American classic, Jerome Robbins’ 1944 Fancy Free, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and was set to a score by Leonard Bernstein. Reed danced the role of one of the three young women who go out on the town with three sailors on shore leave. West’s book explores the growth in the 20th century of an expressly American style of ballet, and of the vital roles that dancer (and later, ballet mistress for New York City Ballet) Reed and dancer/choreographer Bolender played in the process.

Excerpted from Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet by Martha Ullman West. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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April 18, 1944, the opening night of Fancy Free, Robbins’s first ballet, was the stuff of artists’ dreams. Nobody, least of all Robbins; Leonard Bernstein, whose first theatrical score it was; or any of the cast members, including Reed, imagined they would take more than twenty curtain calls and make American ballet history. “We all knew something very special had just happened,” Bolender, who was in the audience, said decades later. [Poet and dance critic Edwin] Denby described the scene at the Metropolitan Opera House:

Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, the world premiere given by Ballet Theatre last night at the Metropolitan, was so big a hit the young participants all looked a little dazed as they took their bows. But besides being a smash hit, Fancy Free is a very remarkable comedy piece. Its sentiment of how people live in this country is completely intelligent and completely realistic. Its pantomime and its dances are witty, exuberant, and at every moment they feel natural. It is a direct, manly piece: there isn’t any of that coy showing off of material that dancers are doing so much nowadays. The whole number is as sound as a superb vaudeville turn; in ballet terminology it is a perfect American character ballet.37

Fancy Free is the story of three sailors on shore leave in New York and three girls (called passersby in Robbins’s libretto) who have an encounter that begins and ends outside a Broadway bar, with action aplenty inside it in between. Kermit Love designed the costumes, 1940s-style dresses with short, flippy skirts and summer-white sailor suits, and the set was designed by Oliver Smith, who, like Robbins and Bernstein, was only 25 years old.38 Robbins’s 27-minute ballet contains steps from such social dances of the day as a danzón, a rhumba-like Latin American dance, for a solo he himself originally performed; the Lindy; the Shorty George; and, according to Robbins in an interview published in Dance Magazine in 1980, “a lot of theatrical dancing, you know, like waltz clogs, time steps, Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”39


Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet

By Martha Ullman West

University Press of Florida

May 2021

Hardcover, 400 pages, $45


To cast the ballet, which was not performed on pointe but contained a good many classical steps, like grands jetés and tours en l’air, and a central pas de deux, Robbins chose his friends: Reed, Muriel Bentley, and Shirley Eckl as the three girls; John Kriza, Harold Lang, and himself as the sailors. In part, he chose them for their technical versatility. As dance historian Nancy Reynolds writes, they were “five impertinent youngsters, all American born and trained, for whom the switch from vaudeville tricks to the jitterbug to classical ballet pyrotechnics posed no problems; they could wiggle, they could sway, they could somersault and they could execute a grand pirouette with the best of the classical princes. That kind of versatility was American.”40 Bentley, who was a tall brunette with the confident sophistication of the city girl, was cast as the First Passerby; Reed, who, in 1943, when Robbins first conceived the ballet, had only been in New York a short time, had the petite prettiness and image of country freshness that was a natural for the Second Passerby. “Muriel’s movement was more big city . . . sharp and staccato; she was a real rhythmic virtuoso,” Reed said in 1980. “I guess my girl was a little softer, sweeter. Long red hair hanging loose. Every girl I saw do it after me I thought was too tough and hard, consciously trying to be sexy. Which I didn‘t think was right . . . I never really thought of that girl as anyone but myself.”41

Janet Reed and Jerome Robbins in Robbins’ “Fancy Free,” 1944, Ballet Theatre. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Photo by Alfredo Valente, courtesy of Richard Valente

Robbins had first seen Reed perform in Dance Players and, like most of the people who saw her at the time, thought she was wonderful. Many of the reviewers of Fancy Free pegged her as an unknown, a young soloist with the company, even though by 1944, at age 28 she was highly experienced, having performed professionally in principal and soloist roles for nearly a decade on both sides of the continent and on tour all over the United States. Robbins, who had watched her in the work of other choreographers for Ballet Theatre, was well aware of Reed’s talents as a theatrical dancer. He knew she was capable of giving fine-tuned, highly detailed performances, which is why he “knew that there was material I wanted to work with. And I used her a lot while she was in the company. I did Interplay with her. Fancy Free. And then when she joined New York City Ballet I used her there.”42

Fancy Free was created under the most grueling conditions. Robbins seized every free moment on a tour that began in January 1944, taking the company by train and bus to Tennessee, Texas, California, Minnesota, Ohio, the Pacific Northwest, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Not only did he have to persuade his friends to rehearse when they were exhausted from dancing in four ballets the night before, in Ballet Theatre’s “ham and eggs” programming, they also “rehearsed whenever and wherever they could, sometimes for little more than a half hour. Fancy Free was hammered out coast to coast on stages, in rehearsal studios, in hotel lobbies, in nightclubs during daytime hours, and on trains.”43

Robbins observed sailors and their rolling walk, their sense of entitlement as they sauntered down New York’s Broadway or in cities where Ballet Theatre was on tour as they prowled in and out of bars and nightclubs. “Jerry picked up on everything that was going on all around us,” Reed remembered. “I didn’t actually witness this, but someone, Johnny [Kriza] or Jerry, told me that the little episode in Jerry’s solo, the rhumba, where he pretends to dance with a girl who isn’t there . . . he got the idea from seeing a drunken soldier pick up a chair in a bar and dance with it as though it were a girl. Then once, on tour, looking out a train window, we saw planes flying in a shifting, triangular formation, and Jerry choreographed that into the opening sailors’ dance. And one time we were in Bloomington, Indiana, walking down the street on the way to the theater, and Jerry said, ‘I wonder what would happen if’ and he described the girl running and suddenly jumping and the boy catching her. He just talked his image of it as we were walking. I let him walk on ahead a little ways and I said, ‘You mean like this?’ and I ran down the street and jumped at him. And he had to drop his bag to catch me. That’s in the pas de deux we did together.”44

Reed and Robbins left the tour in Cincinnati to return to New York and work directly in the studio with Bernstein, who had been corresponding with Robbins and sending him wax recordings of a piano reduction of the score. The slowness of the communication frustrated both collaborators. The goal was to create the central pas de deux, which Reed would perform first with the choreographer and later on with Kriza. The process was the most collaborative Reed had been involved in, and she found it highly satisfying. “I think when we were in a studio working we were really improvising and Leonard Bernstein was improvising, and we did this back and forth thing. Then once he got something then he’d go home and work on it. But we experimented and it was an exhausting time of trial and error and experiment. . . . I enjoyed it even though it was tiring. It was really very exciting, very stimulating. Because as a dancer I felt a part of the creative thing because I was contributing, too.”45

The duet is tender and ephemeral. It has many high lifts, separations, and reunions and ends with a feathery kiss and Reed’s character gently wiping the lipstick from the sailor’s mouth. This is clearly not a relationship with a future; the ballet was made at the height of American involvement in World War II, as Reed comments:

The whole attitude of so many young people at that time was very disoriented. And we were living right in the middle of it: On tour, when we could get a train, the Ballet Theatre cars would be hooked up to the troop cars. All those soldiers and sailors and ballet troupes, in strange places and different towns. We were uprooted, and although we had a very carefree attitude, we were also very tentative about relationships. There was a certain brashness . . . mixed with a sensitive, almost timid quality. We were all so terribly young, not necessarily young in years, but kind of innocent, and rather lonely. Our attitude was one of wanting to be close to one another, but knowing that it couldn’t last. So that there was this constant reaching out, but knowing that it was only temporary. Can you see that in the choreography, in the pas de deux?46

And of course you can, perhaps not as clearly as when the ballet was first made and perhaps not as clearly with twenty-first-century dancers, but the ephemeral nature of chance meetings is inherent in the choreography, as is Reed’s precise characterization when pretty girl and sailor come to a parting of the ways. Even in grainy black-and-white film clips, the polished dramatic quality of Reed’s performance is clearly visible along with the gestural details—a hip cocked, a hand flexed, a wistful facial expression.

Denby returned to the Metropolitan Opera House a few nights after the opening and paid tribute to the cast in a review titled “Fancy Free: A Second Time.” “They dance it with a direct vitality and a sense of real life that are even more remarkable than their dance brilliance. The three sailors . . . of course have the best roles. But Janet Reed’s transition from the stiffness she first gives her hardboiled part to the later natural abandon is superb.”47

While Reed never viewed her character as hardboiled, Denby picked up on her ability to look natural in all the character ballets she performed in. On May 2, after watching her in three out of four ballets (Pas de Quatre, Fancy Free, and Tally-Ho) at the Met the night before, he made Reed the centerpiece of his review, further defining her as a soubrette in not entirely positive terms. “It was a tour de force,” he wrote, and “redheaded Miss Reed carried it off with determination.”48

He continued, “As a dancer she is a born soubrette: petite, active, bounding, sharp, malicious and strong. She is in her element in character parts where the gesture counts and the speed makes a point. Her fault on the stage is that she often has a tendency to force both in her movement and in her projection; the first breaks the continuity, the second isolates her own part from the general atmosphere and meaning of a ballet. Forcing, except in farce, destroys the dancer’s dignity.”49 That is true enough, although both Pas de Quatre and Tally-Ho could easily be classified as balletic farces. When Denby saw her in Tally-Ho for the first time, he judged her “dancetechnique . . . superior to Miss de Mille’s—the steps are more distinct and rapid, she is more at ease in the lifts.” But he missed “the sense of legato phrasing that Miss de Mille showed.”50 Tellingly, Denby suggests that “a quieter approach, and movements timed just a trifle behind the beat, might help Miss Reed.” Denby had been looking at the way Balanchine choreographed rhythm to reveal the music.

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37. Denby, Dance Writings, 218.

38. Smith had also created the quite different décor for de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo.

39. Quoted in Tobi Tobias, “Bringing Back Robbins’s ‘Fancy,’” Dance Magazine, January 1980.

40. Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth

Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 283.

41. Quoted in Tobias, “Bringing Back Robbins’s ‘Fancy,’” 71.

42. Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 283.

43. Deborah Jowitt, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (New York: Simon

& Schuster, 2004), 79.

44. Tobias, “Bringing Back Robbins’s ‘Fancy,’” 71.

45. Reed interview with Tobi Tobias, 28.

46. Tobias, “Bringing Back Robbins’s ‘Fancy,’” 72.

47. Denby, Dance Writings, 221.

48. Denby, Dance Writings, 221.

49. Denby, Dance Writings, 221.

50. Denby, Dance Writings, 224. Although de Mille had created the role on Reed, she danced it herself at the premiere.

About the author

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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