Jerome Robbins and the Role of Dance

By 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.

Jerome Robbins in rehearsal for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Friedman-Abeles The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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

Jerome Robbins in rehearsal with cast for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Friedman-Abeles The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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.

Jerome Robbins directs the cast in rehearsal for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Martha Swope The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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.

Jerome Robbins directs dancers in rehearsal for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Martha Swope The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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

Dancers in rehearsal for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Friedman-Abeles The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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

Dancers in rehearsal for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Friedman-Abeles The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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

Carol Lawrence rehearsing dance scene with unidentified actor for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Martha Swope The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Tony and Maria Meet

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

Jerome Robbins directs Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence during rehearsal for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Friedman-Abeles The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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.

Carol Lawrence, Jerome Robbins, Larry Kert, and the cast in rehearsal for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Friedman-Abeles The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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.

Chita Rivera, Carol Lawrence, Jerome Robbins, and Larry Kert in rehearsal for the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Friedman-Abeles The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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

Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence in dance at the gym scene from the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Martha Swope The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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.

Jerome Robbins's Notes for the Somewhere ballet. Jerome Robbins's Notes for the Somewhere ballet., Jerome Robbins, Original Source: New York Public Library
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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."

Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert in death scene from the stage production West Side Story (1957) by Martha Swope The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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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