Jerome Robbins and the Role of Dance 

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The creators of West Side Story struggled for months to figure out how to start the story. Jerome Robbins, the choreographer and director, eventually realized he could do the setup of the whole production best in dance. And he did.

In 1957, when dance rehearsals began for West Side Story, Robbins was a well-known choreographer for Broadway and ballet.

Robbins knew that dance could best convey a primary conflict of West Side Story--the battle between gangs over turf. With barely a word, the show begins with gangs stealing the stage from one another.

To make dance central, Robbins demanded 8 weeks of rehearsal rather than the typical 4. He also ensured that all the primary actors could move well, with Chita Rivera (pictured here in the front, right) outshining them all.

Robbins combined ballet, jazz, and pedestrian movements to create dance that conveyed the restless, dynamic energy of youth.

Here in "Cool," the Jets are coiled and tense, trying to find control in a chaotic world.

They jump skyward and then slither slowly to the floor, energy now tightly bound. They are ready to face the Sharks.

Tony and Maria Meet
At the "Dance at the Gym," Tony and Maria see each other--and stand still. Then they begin to move.

Robbins knew that this moment was crucially important. The audience must believe that Tony and Maria fall in love immediately and completely--or the rest of the show fails.

Carefully coaching Carol Lawrence (Maria) and Larry Kert (Tony), Robbins staged a dreamy waltz. The two stare, and then begin moving together, in sync but not touching.

Couples mimic the movements of Tony and Maria in the background, enhancing the completeness of the world they are creating together.

Their mesmerizing waltz ends in a kiss, only lips touching, as the swirl--and battles--of the dance around them soon puncture their world. Tragedy awaits.

These notes about the ballet "Somewhere" also show how much dance helped create another world for Maria and Tony--this time one far removed from the "horrors of the cage of the city."

The show ends with no song and no dance, only a spoken judgment from Maria and a funeral march as the Jets and Sharks carry Tony's body from the stage.

Credits: Story

Images from New York Public Library
Curated by Julia Foulkes

Original 1957 Scenic Design by Oliver Smith, © Rosaria Sinisi

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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