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How ‘West Side Story’ Revives a Lost Style of Dance-centric Musical

"West Side Story" choreographer Justin Peck pays homage to Jerome Robbins and more mid-century choreographers with his fresh take.

"West Side Story"

“West Side Story”

20th Century Studios

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The opening of “West Side Story,” both the 1961 and 2021 films, is not a song or a dialogue scene or even a traditional overture; it’s a dance. And it’s not just a dance — it’s a plunge into a world in which street gangs in 1950s New York launch into the air in bursts of aggressive leaps and exhilarating turns. In Steven Spielberg’s reimagining, the Jets rove through their neighborhood as it is being demolished, their tours and pirouettes not only expressing their rage but also a sense of helplessness against larger forces at hand.

The dance in Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is different from what we’ve seen in movie musicals in the last half century. The film marks a stunning retrieval of a relationship between Hollywood, Broadway, and the ballet world not really seen since, well, the original Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise “West Side Story.”

For his update, Spielberg turned to the person who currently holds Robbins’ old position as resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, 34-year-old phenom Justin Peck. Peck has made a name for himself both at Lincoln Center and on Broadway with his accessible, engaging dance making. He sat down with IndieWire to discuss the legacy of dance in the cinema into which he was stepping. As Peck said, “Jerome Robbins is a big personal hero of mine and it would be a lie to say he hasn’t influenced me as a choreographer. So I think there was something natural about taking this on and feeling like his spirit would exist as part of my own interpretation of it.”

But Peck’s work isn’t just about expanding beyond the “West Side Story” choreography fans know so well; it’s also about extending the dance language of Hollywood musicals, something that “West Side Story” first did over 60 years ago.

Separate Worlds

Dance was treated like an added attraction in the earliest Hollywood musicals. The first musicals after the coming of sound were primarily either operettas, which deemphasized dance, or backstage musicals, in which dance was the characters’ profession. Busby Berkeley’s deco-inspired numbers in the latter were more interested in the arrangement of bodies in space than with any kind of expression through dance. The films built around Fred Astaire were more dance-forward, more often serving to interrupt the narrative than to reveal the characters’ emotions. The camera remained at a distance, allowing the audience to take in the dancers’ full bodies, just as if they were on a stage (which they generally were). 

SWING TIME, from left: Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, 1936

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in “Swing Time” (1936)

Everett Collection / Everett Collection

While this was happening, American ballet was just beginning to come into its own. Americans had long resisted the appeals of ballet, viewing it as foreign and aristocratic, “everything America was against,” according to historian Jennifer Homans. It was modernists such as Martha Graham in the 1920s and European refugees in the 1930s who built the ballet community in the U.S. 

The lack of institutions and traditions in American ballet allowed for movement between the various performance communities—ballet, Broadway, vaudeville, and sometimes Hollywood. Robbins himself bounced between various dance companies and Broadway throughout the 1930s and 40s, before joining George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in 1949, the year after its founding. 

When Worlds Collide

Robbins met his future “West Side Story” collaborator Leonard Bernstein in 1943, when they were both just 25. Choreographer Robbins and composer Bernstein created a narrative ballet about three sailors on leave in New York called “Fancy Free.” The compelling narrative led the ballet to be transformed into a musical, renamed “On the Town,” within a year, with a film version following in 1949. Most of Bernstein’s score was dropped and Robbins was not brought to Hollywood, since star Gene Kelly did his own choreography. 

Despite that lack of deference, Hollywood was increasingly poaching musical talent and properties from Broadway. The rise of color and the culture of the 1950s boded well for the ascent of the movie musical. In particular, the popularity of dream ballets led Hollywood to call on the talents of Broadway/ballet choreographers such as Agnes DeMille and Michael Kidd. 

Dream ballets, first popularized by DeMille’s stage work on “Oklahoma!: in 1943, emerged from this unique dance culture that had grown in the previous decade. In cinema, they acted as a means of bringing together the abstract world of dance with the realism inherent in the medium. These choreographers conceived spectacular sequences in the films “Oklahoma!,” “The Band Wagon,” and “Brigadoon,” while Kelly created his own elaborate ballets in “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” 

Director Stanley Donen (Kelly’s frequent collaborator), perhaps more than any filmmaker, established a transcendent mode of dance filmmaking in the 1950s. Donen’s collaboration with Kidd on “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and with Kelly on “It’s Always Fair Weather” (video below) show the camera and the dance in perfect harmony. 

That harmony is echoed in Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s camerawork as they follow Peck’s choreography, bringing to the frame a sense of unlimited possibility. Peck describes this relationship to a roving camera — rather than a theatrical proscenium arch — as the excitement of working in the medium. As he explained, “The staging and expression is not limited to that traditional proscenium. There’s endless possibilities for how it can be captured — what angle it’s seen from, what kind of camera movement becomes a part of the movement expression.” 

The West Side World

The original 1957 “West Side Story” opened on Broadway at the apex of this unique mid-century moment where the lines between ballet and theater and Hollywood had blurred. DeMille, Kidd, and Kelly’s work was a huge step in that direction, but it was Robbins’ opus that cemented it.

After a decade of choreographing musicals on Broadway and in Hollywood (“The King and I”), while producing challenging, provocative ballets for NYCB such as 1951’s “The Cage,” Robbins’ concept for “West Side Story” was a culmination of all of his work — a show in which serious ideas about contemporary society would be addressed through dance and music.

WEST SIDE STORY, Jerome Robbins, (1918-1998) Director & Choreographer, rehearsing prospective dancers for the film production of West Side Story, 1961

Jerome Robbins rehearsing prospective dancers for the film production of “West Side Story”

Courtesy Everett Collection

As with “Fancy Free,” Robbins conceived of a world of dance first, then brought on Leonard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents to add the music and words. Unlike the films and plays that preceded it, the dance would not be tangential to the diegetic world, but the embodiment of every idea and feeling expressed. “That’s really how Jerome Robbins moved the needle,” said Peck.

Robbins’s work was so central to “West Side Story” that he was asked to direct the movie, despite his limited film experience. Veteran Robert Wise was brought in to co-direct, and Robbins was later fired for going over budget and schedule. Despite their joint Best Director Oscar win, Robbins did not return to Hollywood, instead focusing his career on the ballet with occasional forays into Broadway. (Peck references Robbins’s 1969 masterwork “Dances at a Gathering” as a key influence on his own stage work.)

Robbins’ sole cinematic directorial effort stands as one of the last gasps of the mid-century, dance-forward musical. Throughout the 1960s, the genre would slowly fall out of favor with the dissolution of the studio system.

With no more infrastructure in place like that of MGM’s fabled Freed Unit (one of three musical units running at the studio’s peak), each movie musical required assembling a new team and facilities. Peck points to this as a challenge of making large-scale musicals. “Nowadays,” he said, “to build out a movie musical requires a lot of energy, a lot of effort, and a lot of financial support that has to be created from scratch for the specific project.” It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of the most successful director in Hollywood history being able to make a film on the scale of 2021’s “West Side Story.”

Making a Modern West Side

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“West Side Story”

Niko Tavernise

By setting the film in the 1950s, rather than reimagining it in a contemporary context, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner not only offer a historical perspective on the racial strife and gentrification of that era, but also revive this lost tradition of dance musicals, in which the ballet figures as prominently as the libretto. And though like any artistic form, trends in dance change with the times, Peck retains many of Robbins’ actual steps. Even more so, he works in the big, high-spirited style of mid-century musicals. As he put it, “It’s set in 1957… If this was a ‘West Side Story’ set in the present day, it would have been a whole different movement style.” 

But while the choreography sometimes feels as if it’s lifted directly from Robbins’ original, this is more often a stylistic reference than a carbon copy. Peck calls this a “tightrope balancing act of paying homage to the original and also making it new in some ways.” Numbers such as “Cool” and “America” are entirely restaged away from their boxed-in sets, transported to large, outdoor spaces, where performers move across various environments and incorporate the scenery into their movements. 

The collaboration between Peck and Spielberg recalls earlier pairing such as Kelly/Donen and Robbins/Wise. As Peck explained, “It was very collaborative working with Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski on how the dances would be captured on camera and a lot of times we would customize the choreography to certain camera shots.” The epic opening shot of the “Dance at the Gym” was brainstormed by Spielberg and Peck early on so, “I knew to expect that and I knew how to build out the choreography for that shot and for that section.”

The Modern World of the Musical 

Dance in modern musicals is often a tongue-in-cheek spectacle — a throwback reference to supposedly simpler time. But what is notable about the dance in Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is how seriously is it taken as a means of expression. After being treated as something of a joke over the last several decades, the reality of street hoodlums doing ballet is taken on with complete sincerity. 

Peck is thoughtful about this approach. “There’s a slight suspension of disbelief with seeing the Jets who are these vicious gang members suddenly lift off into movement,” he said. “And I think the best way to think about that is it’s a kind of language meant to symbolize the power in numbers, the bond, the unifying gravity that exists between the Jets and how it’s expressed in these celebratory outbursts of unison dancing. When you see them suddenly burst out into movement in the prologue, that’s what that’s about there. It’s a deeper thing than just like literally thinking, ‘Would gang members from that time period dance like that?’”

Sebastian Serra as Braulio, Ricky Ubeda as Flaco, and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“West Side Story”

Niko Tavernise

That blend of realism and theatricality marks this new “West Side Story” as both a throwback to a different time and something entirely new. As Peck reminds us, “We have to remember that it is still a musical and that there’s a unique kind of expression that exists in it. This isn’t full blown realism, literal realism.”

The best filmmakers of dance, such as Donen, seem to marvel at it — both the agility of the dancers and the spectacle of bodies in syncopated motion. This sense of awe permeates Spielberg’s film. Asked if he sees a future with more large-scale, dance-forward musicals like “West Side Story,” Peck sounded cautiously hopeful. “I think it just depends on whether a studio or a director or a producer really wants to go the extra mile to support a level of quality with a movie musical,” he said. “And I hope there are more. I hope that this can stand as an example.” He smiled and added, “It was challenging for sure. But it was a lot of fun to work on too.”

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