Justin Peck Is Set To Choreograph The West Side Story Film Remake; What Does That Mean To The Dance World?

by Michael Mahany | 10/3/2018 3:25 PM

Justin Peck with his 2018 TONY for Best Choreography. Photo Credit: Emilio Madrid-Kuser 


It was announced last week that the TONY® Award-winning New York City Ballet resident choreographer and Soloist Justin Peck, is set to choreograph the film remake of the Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein masterpiece, West Side Story. 


Peck, who won the 2018 TONY® Award for Best Choreography for his work on the Broadway revival of Carousel, has long been established as a classic technician whose movement and style fit seamlessly into the contemporary echelon of dance. With his ability to take an authoritative eye to quintessential balletic movement— especially that of the original films late choreographer, Jerome Robbins— and translate it to the days modern influence, Peck would be considered an ideal candidate for the job. 


Why Peck? 


Specifically, Justin Pecks ability to take the primary movement styles found in West Side Story— everything from fluid and graceful to staccato, abrasive and aggressive— and render them acceptable to both viewers of today and original film purists will, ultimately, be what makes this opportunity a choreographic success.  


Justin PeckThe Times Are Racing. Video Credit: NYCB 


Choreography as narrative driven and iconic as that of Jerome Robbins’ original in West Side Story, will need to be transmogrified correctly to the current times in order to survive, and Peck, as he showed so successfully in the recent revival of Carousel, is one of the few up to the task. 


Peck understands how to ride the line between high dance and down-to-earth movement. He knows how to bring the uptown crowd to a downtown world, and he knows how to take a technical balletic movement that the score of West Side Story so clearly lends itself toward, and translate it to the contemporary. 


The Flip Side? 


The question remains, however, how will the choice of Peck as choreographer of the classic films remake reflect the changing landscape of the stage and screen? In the todays world where audiences have come to recognize that cultural, gender, and artistic representation matter, how will the lack of a choreographer of color— especially on a piece that draws so heavily from its culturally specific plot— affect the final piece? 


While its true, Peck has shown he can successfully navigate the translation of high art to a more relatable bourgeois expression, but how will he and the films producers steer the ship when the inevitable and valid argument of representation appears? 


There are many choreographers that may have a more contemporary grasp on todays dance styles or, even more poignantly, a connection to the Puerto Rican heritage from which many of the characters and their movements derive. West Side itself, holds within a custom and ethnically bound tightrope that needs to be closely walked. This metaphorical tightrope draws from the pieces epic and culturally driven musicality, taut societal lyrics, and the sheer craftsmanship of Bernstein and Sondheims monumental score. 


The Long And The Short Of It 


Though Peck is still relatively early in his career, hes also well on his way to establishing a professional legacy, much to the tune of Robbins’ himself, and not just at New York City Ballet, but beyond.  


Daniel Applebaum (left), Justin Peck (center), Allen Peiffer (right) performing in Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite at NYCB. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik 


Jerome Robbins, like Peck, had a storied and successful career at New York City Ballet. When he joined George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirsteins newly formed NYCB in 1949 as Associate Artistic Director, Robbins was 31 years old— Pecks current age.  


Peck holds over a decade of performance and choreographic experience under his belt, a freshly minted and molded TONY® award, and all the momentum of a downtown-bound subway train.  


So, how will it all play out? Guess well just have to wait to for the rumble. 


Michael Mahany is a writer, host, actor, and serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.