Jerome Robbins was a classically trained ballet dancer who was emerging as a successful Broadway choreographer when he was approached by Rodgers and Hammerstein to choreograph The King and I, and specifically, the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. Robbins was faced with the challenge of telling a crucial part of the play’s story using a form of dance he had no experience with.
Robbins set about researching and learning as much as he could about Siamese dance. He began by viewing sculptures and reading books on Asian arts and theater. He couldn’t find much about Siamese dance, so he explored Asian dances from neighboring countries like Cambodia and Laos. He began working with a trained classical Cambodian dancer in order to learn the specifics of the style.
He then held intense sessions with his dance ensemble in order to pass on these techniques. He initially struggled to choreograph in this distinct style that was so foreign to him and his dancers. It took some encouragement from Rodgers who advised him to “use the Siamese movement, but don’t become a slave to it.”
Ultimately, he succeeded in fusing his own storytelling background and choreographic style with the traditional form in order to create a unique, evocative, and compelling ballet that serves the story and has become an iconic part of musical theater history.
Choreography: the dances and movements the choreographer creates and the performers perform that tell aspects of the story and heighten the emotions of a song Choreographer: the person who creates the dances and physical movements the performers do in the show