We are honored to welcome Michael Uthoff, Artistic & Executive Director of Dance St. Louis, as a guest author on Behind the Jeweled Curtain. In this article, Michael shares his unique insight and reflections on the significance of Jerome Robbins' career and his incredible choreography in West Side Story. West Side Story is part of both the U.S. Bank Broadway Series and Dance St. Louis' 2011-2012 subscription seasons and plays at the Fox Theatre February 14-26, 2012.
The First National Tour of West Side Story. © Carol Rosegg 2011
Perhaps no musical theatre work or dance creation has had so much influence on turning young men to dance. West Side Story told us it was cool, real cool to dance. Though many a musical had taken place before it and several did integrate their dancing sequences into the plot, none, in my opinion, had succeeded like West Side Story in doing so until then.
Furthermore, the greatness of the young Jerome Robbins became even more evident. Here was an incredible young man that through his works was able to capture the essence of the time, and what was even more important while entertaining he made you think and become aware of your surroundings. His work, not only West Side Story but all those he had created and continued to create until his death, captured the human spirit. They were about man (in the universal way) for man. Audiences connected, they felt drawn and still are, not only to the dance but the human nature of the performer.
In West Side Story we see Mr. Robbins bringing to the stage what he had nurtured and developed with his NY Export Jazz Ballet Company, the most American art form, Jazz in dance. How can you not be transported when for the first time the curtain rises to a group of men snapping their fingers and dancing along to convey to you exactly, without need of language, what was going on and what the next few hours were going to relate. Through movement, Mr. Robbins more than anyone of his contemporaries, was able to tell you what a person was thinking and what they were feeling.
As a young dancer with the Joffrey Ballet I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Robbins. A task master. We were to perform his ballet Moves, a work in total silence depending solely on the talent and concentration of the performers to make certain that all his ideas were fulfilled. It was an invaluable experience. We dreaded the day he was going to show up for rehearsals having heard horror stories about how fanatic he would get during the process. His Demands. His Expectations. Well the day came and demands and expectations were made but through a process that inspired us, at least me, to try harder as I seemed to know exactly what he wanted, was at first not able to give to him, but little by little grasped it. And, all those stories never materialized. A committed and demanding creator who expected and wanted nothing less from the interpreters of his work.
Though at times his works might be viewed more on their historical perspective because of need to be pertinent to the times they were created, they do not stop enchanting us. Making us shake in our seat and leave the theatre having experienced something special. Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and ballets such as Afternoon of a Faun and Dancers at a Gathering have made for some of the most indelible and unforgettable evenings in the theatre. For those of you who will experience West Side Story for the first time be prepared to be wowed and for those of us who have been touched by it already, let us reminisce on where we were then and the impact these works have had in sculpting our character.
West Side Story and Jerome Robbins’ work are a vital cog in not only American Theatre and Dance but the entire world was touched and changed by what this man achieved.