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75 years of FANCY FREE!

Posted April 17, 2019

This week we celebrate 75 years of FANCY FREE!

Fancy Free is the first collaboration between choreographer Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein. The two met in the fall of 1943 when 25-year old Robbins approached Bernstein with an idea for an American ballet in one act called Fancy Free. Their inspired work began immediately to bring a story of three sailors on leave in New York City to life, and a commission was established in December with The Ballet Theatre (now the American Ballet Theatre). In a letter to Robbins, Bernstein wrote, “I’m really doing my best to have it ready in time. It’s a battle, but everything’s a battle that ever turns out to be good.” Bernstein was correct in his prediction that the effort would be well worth the outcome.

Cadmus, The Fleet's In!

[Robbins was inspired by painter Paul Cadmus’s controversial oil painting, The Fleet’s In! (1934), to bring a story of sailors on leave to the ballet stage.]

Garnering two dozen curtain calls, the premiere performance of Fancy Free, held on April 18, 1944, at the Metropolitan Opera House, has become one of legend. Certainly, its success marked a turning point for both Robbins and Bernstein’s careers. Not only were performances extended two additional weeks at the Metropolitan Opera, but a summer tour was arranged to take Fancy Free to California, also marking Bernstein’s conducting debut at the Hollywood Bowl.

Fancy Free, American Ballet Theatre, 2018

[American Ballet Theatre, 2018, Photo by Paul Kolnik]

John Martin characterized Fancy Free in the New York Times as “a rare little genre masterpiece—young, human, tender and funny,” and Edwin Denby wrote that “ballet in the United States had a bright moment of eagerness and glory.”

The new ballet resonated with its modern audiences, as Carol Oja points out: “Fancy Free was about twentysomethings in a time of war, about transience, risk taking, and the sheer fun of popular culture. It focused on New York City, balancing high art with popular entertainment to produce a here-and-now aesthetic.” Where Robbins and Bernstein’s inventive combination of modern, free-style, and jive music and dance brought a new energy to the stage, Oliver Smith’s simple yet striking set design brought the scene to life. “Visually, it positions the innocence and vulnerability of the soldiers against the alluring city, a playground brimming with risks,” Oja describes.

San Francisco Ballet, 2018, Fancy Free

[San Francisco Ballet, 2018, Photo by Erik Tomasson]

A thrilling and iconic work still today, Fancy Free has been performed throughout the world during the Leonard Bernstein Centennial Event with over 90 performances of the original ballet and more than 80 performances of the orchestral work, Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free.