Photo credit: United Artists
The 1961 Oscar-winning film, West Side Story, is a classic that many dance fans have at the top of their movie musicals list. There's now a renewed interest in the Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins-directed film because Steven Spielberg is helming his own vision for the landmark film.
On October 11, which would have been Robbins' 100th birthday, The Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, California celebrated Words on Dance: Jerome Robbins and West Side Story. It brought together some members of the original cast including Eliot Feld (Baby John), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Rita Moreno (Anita) and Russ Tamblyn (Riff). Broadway and film director/choreographer Rob Marshall moderated the event.
Dance Network spoke with Rita Moreno, Eliot Feld and Rob Marshall to understand why Robbins' legacy is so important to the dance industry in 2018. Each of them had a particular memory as to why his movement resonated with so many in emotional and timeless ways.
"[Jerome Robbins] tells stories through dance, that's really what it was. There was no one like him because he found drama through story, humor in stories, relationships in his dance — it's throughout all of his work," explained Marshall. "His ballets are stunning, but I personally love his work on Broadway."
For the actors in his film, the Robbins influence was even more profound. Feld wound up moving on to American Ballet Theatre after West Side Story. He eventually launched his own ballet company, Feld Ballet in 1967.
"Working with Jerry affected me a way that I was very much aware of when I was working on my first dance with friends," reminisced Feld. "Jerry came and he watched it and he said, 'I think it's fabulous.' He called Lucia Chase over at American Ballet Theatre and I got a chance to choreograph."
For Moreno, the film earned her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing Anita. It wasn't just the acting that won her the award, she knows it was Robbins' integrated dance movement that helped flesh out her character.
"Everything about Jerome Robbins stands out, mostly because the choreography was so different. It was not your average movie dance numbers. His choreography had a completely different vision when it came to dance," Moreno shared."He was truly a genius. He choreographed for character and that is unusual. A lot of great choreographers don't do that because they don't know how to do it. The steps that Anita danced were so specifically Anita, they would not have been good for any other character."
With a classic film that still holds up as fresh and exciting, there is the looming question about Spielberg's upcoming reimagining of the film with choreographer Justin Peck and starring Ansel Elgort as Tony. Marshall knows how daunting this task can be because he tackled a Bob Fosse classic, Chicago, in 2002. That film went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, so Marshall has some great advice for the young choreographer.
"How do you follow a master? The only thing you can do is go to the story, that's what I would do. What are you trying to say? Try finding your connection to the story and let it come through that," he advised. "With Chicago, I kept trying to conceive a big conceptual change, so that I would stay away from Fosse. Reconceptualizing helps things."
What is most heartwarming about the upcoming film is how open to the idea the original cast is. They are ready for another interpretation of the story.
"I cannot tell you how excited I am — a new screenplay, a new direction, three generations beyond," Feld shared. "It was a Broadway show and then Jerry and Bob Wise were charged with taking the stage production and bringing it to the screen. I don't think the new production is charged with the same responsibility. The movie we made was a hybrid because it made a transition from stage to screen. I think the new production can just make a film without the burden of bringing it from stage to screen. I am very curious what they will do."
But you can't do a new movie without the blessing of Moreno, who is thrilled to see Spielberg in charge.
"I can't think of anyone else who could possibly handle that better," Moreno summed up. "Isn't that exciting?"
The new 'West Side Story' begins filming in the summer of 2019.
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