Joey McKneely | Interview

In stewarding the choreography of Jerome Robbins, West Side Story’s dance director balances preservation and relevance.

Photograph: Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of West Side Story in performance.

In our June 2–8 issue, [node:14781701 link=I talked with Broadway dance director Gary Chryst about how choreography evolves on the Great White Way;], specifically Bob Fosse’s moves for Chicago, which Ann Reinking adapted and Chryst oversees.

On Tuesday 19, West Side Story opens a four-week stay at the [node:32168 link=Cadillac Palace Theatre;]. I called that show’s dance director, Joey McKneely, in New York to hear how he and West Side’s author, Arthur Laurents—who died on May 5 at the age of 93—negotiated similar challenges regarding the work of choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Before Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, in 1989, had you ever crossed paths with the choreographer?
No, that was my first experience with him and also with West Side Story. So I learned it all from Robbins, from the very beginning. It was a very unique experience because we were in rehearsals for six months, which is basically unheard of. I always look at it like I was in a masters college course with him. And not only studying West Side Story, but studying all of his shows, all of his work…how he choreographed, and why he chose to choreograph the way that he did.

Robbins was famously difficult in the studio. Was rehearsing with him challenging?
Not really, because we got Robbins at the end of his life, and I was the baby of the group. I just remember him being so happy to be coming back to the theater. He hadn’t been in the theater in over 20 years, and I just remember him really enjoying his time with us. I also never saw it as tense because his integrity was always to the choreography, not to the dancer. A lot of people felt he was difficult with them because they weren’t giving him what he needed.… I never had that problem, because everything he gave me, I made it my own and threw it back at him. He was, like, “Good. Great. Love it. Next!”

How old were you?
Twenty or 21.

What were some of the shows you learned?
Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, On the Town… Hm. Gypsy, High Button Shoes…it was a retrospective of all of his Broadway show-stoppers, from about 1944 to 1964.

How many productions of West Side Story have you staged to date?
Oh my God, about 15, 17. I’ve been doing it since 2000. I’ve done many international versions, in Japan, all over Europe. A lot of tours.

How similar are they?
Basically the same, internationally, because they were done through a company and I directed and choreographed those. For Broadway, since Arthur Laurents was directing, I mean, it’s Arthur Laurents, [Laughs] so the choreography was a little different, because Arthur wanted to look at West Side in a different light, whereas before I did the original choreography intact as I knew it, through the research that I did. For the Broadway revival and the tour revival that you’ll be seeing in Chicago, Arthur adjusted things to fit his new vision of [West Side Story].

What do today’s dancers learn from working in Robbins’s style?
Character and motivation. What Robbins brought to choreography was the essence of simplicity of movement for a character. You never did steps just to do steps. All of the choreography was built to tell a story…whereas [Bob] Fosse really had steps, simple, perfect, stylistic steps. I think dancers nowadays are basically just doing steps, without any true meaning or character.

And the process of learning West Side Story counteracts that tendency?
Absolutely, because, with West Side, the dancers have to be characters, and it’s an ensemble show.… They actually have to act, and they have to carry the plot from dance, to scene, back to dance, back to scene, interwoven. I think that challenges the dancers in a way they don’t usually get challenged.

Tell me about this choreographic manual for West Side Story.
Well, it was created, I think, in the early ’70s, when West Side Story really started to take off, and West Side Story cannot be done without the original choreography: It’s part of the structure, as book, libretto, score and lyrics—they’re treated as equals. So this manual was created so that anybody who wanted to license West Side Story had a reference tool, with diagrams and choreography written out, in basic layman’s terms…basically “turn on right foot, pivot.” …In Robbins’ Broadway we did the West Side Story Suite, which is all the major dances: Prologue, Dance at the Gym, America, Cool, Rumble, Ballet. And I did all of those, except for America. The manual was helpful to look at for the material that I didn’t learn…it’s one of the many reference tools one has.

A supplemental guide, then, more than a detailed recipe.
I think a smart-enough dancer could take a look at it and make sense of it, although it would be a facsimile of the original, you know. Someone who actually experienced the show or learned it would be able to put that extra layer or two on top of it. Dance is a physical, visual art form, and that’s why dances basically only survive when those who learned them can pass them down. In 50 years, Balanchine [ballets] won’t look like Balanchine looked in our time. It’s going to get watered down, it will just evolve, I believe. Same thing with Fosse. I think the original Fosse [dances] had a certain look and vibe to them that was amazing, and then they did Fosse the [1999 Broadway] show, and it was all the same steps, but something was a little off about it. That’s just what happens…it gets watered down to the next generation and the next generation.

Are you saying that choreographic preservation is impossible?
It depends on who’s doing the passing on down, I think.

What couldn’t you change in order to keep the essence of the original?
Basically, the stage pictures and the storytelling. You cannot change the storytelling. The Prologue tells the story of the gangs and the turf war and the hierarchy of the members of the gangs. I didn’t want to touch anything because it wasn’t my choreography. It was really Arthur’s prodding, [him] going, “I don’t like that, it makes him look like a ballet dancer. How can we make them look edgier? How can we make it look more violent?”

Do you think that he wanted these things from the beginning, but just wasn’t comfortable asking Robbins?
I think that, back in ’57, they were pushing the envelope, but they could only push it so far because the world was different from what it is today. The world is much more violent now.… We were trying to grasp that feeling and bring it into the story, so that it can resonate with today’s audiences, so they’re not thinking, I don’t believe in them, I’m not scared of them. Removing that museum quality to it, to try to get at the energy of today.

Is Broadway less strict about historical choreography than the concert-dance world?
First of all, concert-dance has the opportunity to use videotape, where theater doesn’t really have that opportunity as much.

Why is that?
Well, I think a lot of the unions restrict that. You have the [Actors’] Equity union that restricts the taping of the shows. They might tape them for historical purposes, but not all shows get taped.… Ballet companies, for instance, they’ll send a videotape to a ballet company and the dancers will learn from that, and then someone will come in and tweak it for them. Theater dance is [about] much more than just the steps. It’s about the character’s execution of the steps and I find that, unless you have a direct lineage to the original choreography, the essence of the movement, or what the movement is supposed to be telegraphing…the plot, or the emotion is lost because people either forget it, or change it without really being aware of it.

What can the concert-dance world learn from how things happen on Broadway?
I think it’s apples and oranges, honestly. When the concert-dance world starts becoming like Broadway, that’s not the concert-dance world anymore. The concert-dance world is pure dance, dance for movement’s sake.… When the concert world and the ballet world start making big production numbers and costumes and all this other stuff, I think, “That’s not what you do. That’s what Broadway does.” And I also don’t think Broadway should turn into concert-dance. Broadway can open up [dance] because of its massive appeal, like with [Twyla Tharp’s Billy Joel dansical] Movin’ Out. She was able to take concert-dance and make a theatrical experience out of it. But when Twyla did that next thing, it didn’t make sense. It felt like, Now I’m looking at a concert piece that’s trying to be theatrical.

Come Fly Away, Tharp’s Sinatra dansical?
The last two she did, the Sinatra one and the other one, with Bob Dylan. [Those] didn’t work because they didn’t have enough characterization, didn’t have enough storytelling, whereas Movin’ Out did. Those were characters storytelling from point A to point Z. They went through an arc. I do think the worlds are very separate.

Do you keep up with concert-dance, or go regularly to the ballet?
No, I don’t. I go sometimes, but I’m a theater guy. I love to go to the ballet because, to me, ballet takes pure movement and brings it to a more perfectionist level. And I see there are some wonderful choreographers out there now, like that Russian choreographer at [American Ballet Theatre].

Alexei Ratmansky.
Yes. I watch his stuff and go, “Wow.” He brings qualities that Robbins used to bring to the ballet. I’ve seen some wonderful movement from William Forsythe and some other fantastic dances that really capture the music, [that] have an identity. It’s been interesting with someone like Bill T. Jones coming to Broadway. I think that that’s more about bringing a great, different personality, which Broadway can use, although essentially, it’s not Broadway. It’s hit or miss. It’s good when we cross-breed, because we all learn from each other.

Catch West Side Story at the Cadillac Palace Theatre Tuesday 19 through August 14.

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