BWW Book Reviews: THE CAGE: Dancing for Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, 1949-1954 by Barbara Bocher and Adam Darius.
Barbara Bocher answers that question in her memoir The Cage, named after one of Robbins' most noted ballets. If any ballet could serve as a metaphor for her brief career, The Cage would certainly be it.
Bocher was the youngest dancer to ever join the New York City Ballet, being only fourteen and a very innocent, polite and malleable teenager from Oklahoma City. She came to New York to study at the School of American Ballet, having the luck to be taught by Muriel Stuart, a dancer who had performed wth Anna Pavlova's troupe. Stuart was highly impressed with Bocher and passed the word on to Balanchine, who took notice of Bocher's talent right away and invited her to join the company.
For a 14 year old this was a chance of a lifetime. She was not only to dance in the works of a great choreographer, she would tour throughout the United States and Europe, sharing luncheons, receptions and conversations with Lord Mountbatten, Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn and Claire Boothe Luce; having her face painted personally by Cecil Beaton for a Frederick Ashton ballet; performing under the batons of Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, sharing the stage with Maria Tallchief, as well as being called upon to dance demi-soloist roles as well as principal roles.
This sounds like heady stuff for anyone and Bocher was overwhelmed by that feeling we have all experienced when the world seems to be turning around us. Unfortunately, the realities of life in any ballet company, then or now, bring company members down to a very realistic plane, and Bocher fell with a thud.
Until she left the company Bocher danced not only Balanchine, but the ballets of Jerome Robbins as well. Bocher writes of Robbins' rudeness, nastiness and his penchant to curse at his dancers. He would repeatedly ask them to perform the same steps time and time again; give roles and then take them away; and have dancers learn different versions of his ballets, which they were then expected to perform at whim. This will come as no surprise to those who know about Jerome Robins, but Bocher was shocked and outraged at such behavior, compared to the relaxing conditions she encountered when rehearsing with Balanchine.
Bocher tries to analyze Robbins' behavior; she senses that it might have sprung from many sources: hatred of his parents, disgust with Judaism or self abhorrence because he was gay and tried to hide it, even though everyone knew about it. There was also the matter of his testifying before HUAC because Ed Sullivan threatened to personally out him if he did not do this. So Robbins appeared before HUAC and named several friends, whose careers were to be stalled for many years. And then there was Bocher herself who bore a resemblance to Rose Tobias, a fiancée of Robins who broke it off when she found out that Robbins was having an affair with Montgomery Clift. Bocher thinks that this might have annoyed Robbins the most, since it reinforced his feeling as a failed heterosexual.