Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dances for the Broadway revival swarm and sweep, but Robbins’s choreography was something more central: the libretto.
By Gia Kourlas
Do you miss the finger snap? The new “West Side Story” has retired it. But that generation-defining gesture isn’t just the stale move of a 1950s beatnik. In the original production, based on a conception by Jerome Robbins, it set more than the beat. It was the tone, the vivacity, the pulse behind dancing that articulated the raw physicality of rage, of yearning, of love — emotions contained within a group of youthful bodies on a hot summer night.
That snap may not seem like much, but in the revamped version now on Broadway, which has replaced Robbins’s choreography with new dances by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, it’s a ghost on the stage. That’s because what Robbins created wasn’t just a series of dances, however peerless, but an overarching view of how, beyond anything else, movement could tell a story.
Robbins’s choreography — with its searing blend of tension and freedom — gives “West Side Story” its joy and its horror. It springs the events into action. Arthur Laurents wrote the book, but Robbins’s choreography is the true libretto.
So while the stellar combination of Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics endures, dancing has always been the true star of “West Side Story,” where the overheated body is the reason these young men and women, so full of nerves and pride, are ready to burst out of their skin.
Choreographers, the best ones anyway, don’t just think about steps. “The Dance at the Gym” is more than a battle between the Jets and the Sharks. It’s a physical and emotional release: A murmur that builds to a scream.
While it’s understandable that the current show’s director, Ivo van Hove, and Ms. De Keersmaeker, both Belgian, would want to distance themselves from Robbins to present their own version of this classic American musical, there’s a major hitch: film. Not the 1961 one directed by Robert Wise and Robbins (until he was fired) that won a bunch of Oscars, but film you’re forced to endure throughout this production.
The video, by Luke Halls, is impossible to ignore. Like a landscape painting, it stretches across the entire back of the stage, showing us ponderous footage of street scenes moving in slow motion or close-ups of the actors’ faces, both prerecorded and shot in real time. It smothers any actual aliveness.
That includes, of course, the dancing, which operates, to various degrees, like wallpaper. Choreography doesn’t make this reimagined “West Side Story” breathe. (The former Miami City Ballet principal Patricia Lucia Delgado, who is also an associate producer, and the Tony-winning choreographer Sergio Trujillo are the production’s dance consultants.)
Ms. De Keersmaeker is a well respected contemporary choreographer. If you know her work, it feels like a fun secret to see her spirals and circles at play on Broadway, rather than the concert stage or the floor of the Museum of Modern Art. Alas, there are problems.
Even when you’re swept up by flocks of dancers sailing across the stage in formal arrangements, the choreography has little sustained urgency. Because of the looming video, you glean more of the structure of the dance — its frame — than its interior details. Ms. De Keersmaeker plays with gravity and buoyancy in her passages, which borrow from hip-hop, martial arts and house along with her own contemporary vocabulary. Yet on a stage this large and hampered by the film, the in-between moments are lost.
Those transitional moments — how you get from one step to the next — are what dancing is all about. Here the choreography is part of a larger vision that renders it extraneous or, worse, inconsequential.
Ms. De Keersmaeker is fond of giving her performers movement that takes them to the floor — the leads writhe in passion; the ensemble rolls and whirls — but the results can be muddled. The fight scenes look like outtakes from the 1960s “Batman” show (without words like “Kapow!” and “Sock!”).
And the extended onstage rainstorm isn’t much of a thrill: The performers, sopping wet, don’t tear through the fight choreography so much as push forward with a grit-your-teeth kind of tentativeness. You can hardly blame them: A soaking floor is an injury waiting to happen.
Ms. De Keersmaeker’s roots are not in musical-theater but contemporary dance where her heroes are postmodern artists like Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton. When you can make out the details of her movement here, you grasp its rippling flow and bodies, seemingly unhampered by bones.
Marc Crousillat, a Shark, tells you everything you need to know about how her phrases can be transcendent — he is a vision of clarity and looseness. But there are awkward moments with many of the dancers who are not equal to sustaining qualities of drive and undulating motion. What is it all building up to?
Robbins, both a micro and macro choreographer, was able to show the body’s expressiveness without self-conscious touches, while taking care that every bit of the stage served a purpose — even the negative space. And there is the naturalness of his movement, which never required that a dancer add anything extra. His way to get dancers to tone it down? He would say, “Easy.”
It’s not a dirty word. Mr. Crousillat gets easy. Yet the production seems to be aiming for that cheesiest of words: gritty. It doesn’t seem to grasp that it’s important not only how a dancer leaps but how he stands. Here, the most macho gang members are almost comical: Arms hang down and curl in at either side, and feet are planted feet wide — like cowboys fresh from the gym — so as not to reveal classical turnout. It’s posturing.
Robbins’s deep movement investigations revealed — and still do — how emotions, even the most imperceptible ones, live within the body. That’s not always an easy quality to draw out. Shereen Pimentel, as Maria, is a powerful singer but not a natural mover; you ache for her when she has to dash happily around the stage. And Isaac Powell, as Tony, has many charms as an actor, but when he moves — even just stretching his arms from side to side — he suddenly looks like he’s the lead in a rom-com.
There are other questionable moments, as when the Sharks and the Jets position themselves on either side of Maria and Tony to pull them apart, after the couple meets at the gym. It’s an image embarrassingly more suited to an Instagram post, which is sad but fitting: This is an Instagram show.
I love a modern remake or rethink. Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!,” which closed last month, was searing. Keone and Mari Madrid’s “Beyond Babel,” a retelling (like “West Side Story”) of “Romeo and Juliet” through West Coast urban dance, has an endearing teen-spirit sensibility. The show, at Judson Memorial Church, is overlong but genuine — and the choreography is front and center.
What is this “West Side Story”? Its desire to get at something bold and contemporary seems at odds with the script’s creaky mentions of “buddy boy” and “daddy-o.” At times, it comes closer to parody, like a dream sequence on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” starring Andy Samberg as Tony. It thrusts and thrusts, yet little penetrates; for the most part, the characters remain objects — highly evolved physical beings but not so subtle emotionally.
For Robbins, personalities — and their desires — grew from the inside out, just as his classical ballets grew out of pedestrian movement: standing, walking, running. And it was never obvious.
He could reveal the big picture with one dancing body bursting across the stage like there was no tomorrow. For the Sharks and the Jets, that feeling — chasing freedom — is the dance. As for that snap? It anchored everything.
Gia Kourlas is the dance critic of The New York Times.