Miami City Ballet dancers are used to whirling and leaping to a big finale, but as they rehearse the ending of their next premiere, their feet are planted firmly on the floor. The only things moving are their mouths, in a familiar, yearning ballad: “There’s a place for us,” they sing, “somewhere a place for us,” before dropping their heads into stillness.
The song is Somewhere, from the renowned musical West Side Story. And singing was not the only challenge for MCB as the troupe prepared West Side Story Suite, which it will premiere Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center.
"When you walk down the hallways, usually you hear ballet music," says dancer Jeremy Cox. "But now you hear singing everywhere."
West Side Story Suite is not the same as West Side Story. Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, director and co-writer of the 1957 Broadway musical and the 1961 film, re-staged six of its numbers for his 1989 show Jerome Robbins Broadway. In 1995 he made them into a self-contained suite of dances for New York City Ballet, where he choreographed classical ballets when he wasn’t working on Broadway.
Then a dancer with NYCB, MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez was Robbins’ first choice for the central role of Anita, but he rejected her when he found that, as Lopez admits, "I cannot sing to save my life. … I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t carry a tune."
Lopez wanted to give MCB’s dancers the experience she missed of doing a music-theater masterpiece. "It teaches you a lot about yourself as a dancer — it’s a breakthrough moment," she says. "You really have to think as actors, not dancers."
West Side Story updates Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a clash between Puerto Rican and Anglo gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, in New York City. When the innocent Puerto Rican girl Maria falls in love with Tony, who’s allied with the Sharks, tragedy results. The controversial themes; gritty, urban setting and dynamic dances made both the show and film a sensation, and boosted the nascent careers of composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
"For me it’s a great honor and it’s always been a big goal to do this," says Cuban-born MCB principal dancer Reyneris Reyes, who will dance Bernardo, Maria’s dominating brother and the leader of the Sharks. "It’s an American classic."
WSS Suite includes the combative opening “Prologue;” the “ Dance at the Gym,” an exuberant ’50s dance battle; “Cool,” for the hyped-up Jets; “ America,” in which the Puerto Rican women mock poverty at home and racism in New York; “The Rumble,” the battle between the two gangs; and the yearning final “Somewhere” ballet (part of the stage musical but not the film).
Robbins also added a “Something’s Coming” solo for the dancer playing Tony. The dancers have a few lines of dialogue and sing only in “America,” “Cool” and “Somewhere;” other songs are performed by professional singers.
Although MCB dances a number of Robbins’ ballets, they are in a different world from his music theater work. In West Side Story, He took his signature insistence on naturalism and realistic acting to new heights. Chita Rivera, who played Anita in the original Broadway production, says Robbins forbade the actors playing the Jets and Sharks to speak to each other, and had the performers create elaborate biographies for their characters.
Robbins scolded Rivera, she says, when she posed in arabesque to look out a window in one scene, but was pleased when a rehearsal for another, in which the Jets almost gang-rape Anita, turned into a real struggle. "I became so angry the boys became frightened of me," Rivera says. "So he just let it roll. It was fabulous."
"Jerry taught us how to be people and still dance," says Rivera, whose ballet training enables her to understand how difficult it is for classical dancers, schooled from childhood to focus on physical perfection, to let go of their idealized self-image.
"You need to find all these important qualities that make you a person who walks the streets, not this glorious being who flies through the air in a tutu," she says. "You can’t teach the steps – you have to teach what the steps mean, where they come from. West Side Story … gave us permission to be human."
With most of the dialogue stripped from the condensed version of the show in Jerome Robbins Broadway, the dancing had to speak even more clearly.
"Every gesture and movement had a personal history," says Elaine Wright, part of the original cast of the 1989 hit. "In the ‘Dance at the Gym,’ where the Sharks are doing the mambo lineup – he didn’t want a blatant, banal charge. It was, ‘Why are you making that charge?’ ‘Who are you looking at?’ ‘Who is your character,’ ” says Wright, who teaches at New World School of the Arts. "Even if you didn’t have lines, you’re speaking with your body."
Although Robbins also demanded precision in the shape and rhythm of what is often technically demanding choreography, Wright said he became furious if the dancers showed off or played to the audience. "Jerry hated presentation," she says. "If your experience is real and full, the audience is going to come to you."
Staging this musical-ballet hybrid added several layers of demands to the exacting process of mounting a Robbins work. Miami City Ballet had to get permission not just from the Jerome Robbins Trust, which holds the copyrights to his dances and hires people to teach them, but from organizations overseeing the work of Bernstein, Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, who co-wrote the libretto with Robbins. Even the set and costumes must match the original. The company had to cast dancers who fit the characters and submit recordings of them singing.
Jean-Pierre Frohlich, an advisor to the trust and a former NYCB dancer who was Robbins’ assistant, spent four weeks teaching West Side Story Suite to MCB last summer.
"They did very well in rehearsals; the process was good," says Frohlich, who screened the film for the troupe and put the men in sneakers to keep them from pointing their feet. "But it’s very difficult to get the ballet dancer out of them. … You’re all individuals, you all have different ways of doing the same movements. ... They have to dance it like they own it."
MCB’s many Latino dancers have been a plus for the production. As the company rehearsed the "Dance at the Gym" with its skirt swirling, stomping mambo and exuberant, defiant solos, many were grinning with what seemed like genuine delight.
Lopez hopes the work’s themes of racism, ethnically charged conflict and the immigrant struggle for a better life will be powerful ones for South Florida audiences. They have been for some of the dancers.
"I really engaged with the story as a Latin and an immigrant," says Reyes. "I never felt like I had a problem with racism, and I was never in a gang in Cuba. But it feels very real."
The dancers received vocal coaching from Gary Sheldon, conductor of the troupe’s Opus One Orchestra, who coached Rita Moreno (Anita in the film version of West Side Story) for the Broadway play Master Class. Sheldon worked on basics like breath control, pitch and pronunciation, and the tricky process of coordinating singing with dancing. "Movement and music have to work together," he says.
Just as the dancers were coached to drop their ballet gloss, they were discouraged from trying to sing like aspiring divas. “It’s kids on the street – it has to sound real and raw,” says Sheldon.
Cox, who left MCB in 2009 with hopes of working on Broadway and performed in Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra-scored Come Fly With Me, returned for West Side Story Suite. He was initially thrilled to be cast as Jets leader Riff. "Then it crept up on me I was going to be singing onstage in front of an audience," he says.
But Cox and the rest of the cast have been boosting each others confidence.
"Everyone is really excited. We all know this is not what we usually do. But we just have to relax and go for it,” he says. “We’ve got each other’s backs."