By LARRY GETLEN
Amid the tragic scenes in “West Side Story,” there are many flashes of joy -- in the songs and especially the gorgeous dance numbers. But any smiles you see in the dances were pretty much fake, a mask for the terror that every actor felt every day on the set.
The film’s powerful performances, which brought it 10 Oscars including Best Picture, were driven by choreographer Jerome Robbins, who tormented the cast with what amounted to abusive manipulation at every turn.
“Jerry would humiliate dancers. It was a regular thing with him. He really wanted his dancers under his thumb,” says Rita Moreno, who won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Anita. “He would make them do a step anywhere from 15 to 30 to 40 times, until they were just worn out and worn down -- dispirited, almost. He would make dancers absolutely crazy with tension and fear, and yet he would inspire you.”
On Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of the film’s release is celebrated with a Blu-ray edition that includes an extended examination of each dance sequence with commentary from Moreno, “West Side” filmmakers and contemporary choreographers.
Moreno’s favorite number in the film, “Cool,” is driven by stark movements that simultaneously express and sublimate the gang’s anger. “The steps were so intense,” she says. “The tight necks, the grimacing lips, and the way the hands were used in that number. Jerry was a stickler for all dancers having really strong arms. The arms always had to be extended in a very tense way, and the fingers were always splayed out. There were no balletic hand movements.”
If a dance called for the characters to display anger, Robbins made sure to keep the dancers on edge. In addition to driving them to exasperation with unending takes, he also employed a menacing tone.
“It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it,” says Moreno. “Sometimes, when he was in that kind of mood, there would be something threatening about the way he’d say, ‘do it again.’ ”
Ultimately, Robbins perfectionism proved to be too taxing and expensive for the producers, who fired him mid-shoot. As challenging as working with Robbins was, Moreno says cast members were crushed. They knew he was inspiring them to do groundbreaking work. “All dancers who worked with him will tell you this very same thing: -- that if he was alive and called right now and said, ‘I want to do a musical with you,’ I would drop everything [for him].”