I caught the tail end of a very interesting PBS “American Masters” special on Jerry Robbins (of West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Gypsy fame to name a few) last night. I had previously no knowledge of the man, and I consider myself less than an expert on Broadway musicals and ballet. Yet I was captivated by his story. Obsessed is probably an understatement in describing his attention to detail, staging, and choreography. This obsession made him arguably the best choreographer on Broadway (and beyond) producing some of the most memorable musicals of the 20th Century and launching the careers of such as Barbra Streisand (see, I really paid attention to the documentary). His ability to painstakingly transfer the vision in his head onto a stage was what set him apart from all the rest. His domineering style evoked many positive and negative adjectives, but indolent and compromising weren’t two of them. Robbins was renowned for his ability to squeeze every last ounce of talent and potential out of his dancers. Many have remarked that they performed for him at previously unfathomable levels.
Following the spectacular success of Fiddler, Robbins retreated from musicals for almost 25 years (and Fiddler was essentially his last real directorial work). He continued to choreograph exquisite ballet arrangements, but he never really returned to the craft that had made him most famous. When explaining why Robbins retreated from musical theatre, one close colleague remarked that it had become too painful for Robbins to continue having to perfectly transfer this vision in his head onto the stage.
This man with an obsession for painting onto a stage exactly the picture in his head was no longer willing to pay the price to do so. My point is not to bash such a prodigious, productive artist. Who knows if this remark from this friend was entirely accurate. My point is that he was, in my calculation, two giant leaps ahead of where I am right now and then he took one step back (and maybe short-circuited future greatness). I’ve felt recently that what’s really missing from my graduate studies is a good dose of obsession. Now I don’t mean the domineering, family-neglecting, completely unbalanced sort of obsession. I mean the type of obsession where I find a phenomenon that messes with me so much that I have to know everything about it (perhaps Deep Learning as some of my colleagues call it), and I have to find a new way to see it, to know it, and to contribute to the way that others know it. It would be something that keeps me up all night once in a while regardless of whether there’s a “grade carrot” attached and something that ignites my rather atrophied implicit motivation apparatus. If you don’t have that, what do you have? Without it, you become the wrong half of the 50% dropout rate in PhD programs or the lifer ABD guy/gal. Sure, there’s those that do gut it out, but for what? A paycheck, summers “off”, and eventually a comfortable tenure position isn’t enough for me. Unlike many others in this world, I’ve always had all my basic needs taken care of and more (I’m talking middle class, not trust fund living… just for clarification). As such, I’ve been able to, from an early age, think about what it really means to live, what it really means to reach my full potential. There have recently been glimpses of this obsession, but the magic comes in the very next step. The vision is there, the motivation is welling up and we’re faced with a question: “Am I willing to pay the price to transport the unadulterated version of my obsession, my vision into the light of day?” “Will I fight the temptation to compromise when I know that my standards are well above those who are in a position to me move along to the next step in my career?”
Or maybe I’ve just had too much coffee today.