In the new Broadway production, avant-garde choreography incorporates salsa and hip-hop.
When “West Side Story” débuted, in 1957, critics praised its lush, syncopated score, by Leonard Bernstein; its sardonic lyrics, by Stephen Sondheim; and the profane energy of Arthur Laurents’s script. But the choreography of Jerome Robbins, who also directed the musical, was its greatest revelation: his finger-snapping gang members seamlessly combined ballet moves with the body language of the street. In the subsequent six decades, some critics have suggested that the show’s portrayal of gang warfare was a bit romantic. Others have noted that the creators weren’t versed in Latino culture. Nevertheless, whenever “West Side Story” was revived on Broadway, the Sharks and the Jets moved exactly as Robbins had imagined them.
So when it was announced that a new Broadway production would open in February, staged by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove, it came as a surprise that the revival would feature choreography by the avant-garde formalist Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The longtime head of a heralded dance school in Brussels, De Keersmaeker designs meticulous, geometric dances that often consist of movements repeated in a loop. She has a Bach obsession. She is not an obvious choice for “West Side Story.”
And yet, as several members of the new cast recently explained, De Keersmaeker, like Robbins, has a knack for fusing formal movement and everyday gesture. Her piece “Rosas Danst Rosas,” from 1983, is a portrait of pent-up frustration: four young women in gray gym clothes, sitting on wooden chairs, slump over theatrically, whip back their hair, and tug at their sleeves, exposing their shoulders. (Beyoncé has acknowledged, under legal pressure, that the dance inspired the video for her song “Countdown.”)
Madison Vomastek, who plays a Jet named Velma, has never danced a piece by Robbins, but she has loved De Keersmaeker’s work ever since she saw “Rosas” online, when she was thirteen. At a recent rehearsal, De Keersmaeker suggested borrowing some of the “Rosas” gestures for the Jets. “My heart burst open!” Vomastek said.
The new “West Side Story” is set in the present day. Vomastek noted of the choreography, “The one key difference I notice is the snapping—it’s gone.” Zuri Noelle Ford, who plays another Jet, Anybodys, explained that some gang members now carry iPhones. One dancer in each gang captures onstage action with a Steadicam; the footage is displayed on a screen behind the performers. The Jets, Ford said, are no longer all white: “It’s a group of white and black and mixed people. It’s 2020, you know?” The Jets’ movements incorporate house and hip-hop—“things that were created in this country,” Ricky Ubeda, who plays Indio, said.
The Sharks, like most of the actors playing them, are of Latino descent; their dances have Afro-Caribbean inflections. Yesenia Ayala, who plays Anita, grew up in a Colombian family outside Charlotte, North Carolina. She told me that van Hove has worried more about perpetuating Latin stereotypes than she has. “That’s just how we are,” she said. “I love salsa dancing. I love to be loud. I talk with my hands a lot.” She shrugged. “You can’t take that away.”