'Cool' Ballet

'Cool' Ballet Jerome Robbins'' "West Side Story Suite" Joins Rep at NYCB

Jerome Robbins'' "West Side Story Suite" Joins Rep at NYCB

The most delightful surprise of New York City Ballet''s 1995 spring season was seeing some of the world''s best classical dancers looking like young hooligans as they rumbled, danced a fervid mambo, played it cool and, in the case of Nikolaj Hübbe, sang. The occasion was the premiere of Jerome Robbins''s "West Side Story Suite," a thrilling and moving distillation of "West Side Story."

"Just plain terrific," was the way Anna Kisselgoff began her review of the piece in The New York Times. "West Side Story Suite" was such an enormous success that it played to sold-out houses, and an extra performance was added to the schedule to accommodate some of the demand for tickets. The ballet returns to NYCB''s repertory next month for seven performances, beginning January 4.

The two company dancers who likely made the most vivid impression on audiences were Hübbe as Riff, leader of the Jets, and Jock Soto as Bernardo, leader of the rival Sharks. They imbued their dancing with a dynamism, a machismo that was compelling, and each step, each snap of the fingers, each sullen glare, caught the inner life of their characters. NYCB dancers are not used to doing a hybrid form of dancing that combines jazz, Broadway, ballet and a heightened form of street language. Nor are they accustomed to portraying such specific characters (with the notable exception of Robbins''s Fancy Free), or singing and speaking onstage, or participating in a piece that owes as much to theatre as it does to dance. For the dancers learning and absorbing "West Side Story Suite," it was a painstaking, but exhilarating, experience.

"After rehearsing with Jerry for about two-and-a-half weeks, I was very frustrated," says Soto. "I was embarrassed to do some of the steps because I wasn''t doing them well. I didn''t know how to project; I didn''t know how to do what he wanted.

"One day, after rehearsing with him for six hours, he said to me, `You''re not giving me all that you can give.'' I went home and decided to rent the movie of "West Side Story. "The next day after rehearsal Jerry came over to me and said, `You''re doing exactly what I want.'' The movie had given me ideas about how to play Bernardo. Even though Jerry was very specific about what he wanted, it wasn''t until I watched the movie that I understood that I had to think of myself as an actual gang leader; I had to think of myself as this person rather than as a dancer playing this person. And I finally understood that even though Nikolaj is a very good friend, I couldn''t think of him that way when we were performing the piece."

For the Danish-born Hübbe, the movement was particularly alien. "I was like a fish out of water," he says. "The biggest problem was that I couldn''t get the rhythms of the movement; I couldn''t let go and just let the movement happen."

Learning the choreography was difficult for Hübbe, but it was nowhere near as trying as the prospect of singing onstage. Months before NYCB went into rehearsal for the ballet, Robbins had given Hübbe a tape of the song "Cool" and asked him to listen to it. Hübbe put it away thinking, "I''m not going to sing." But eventually the day came where Hübbe had to get up in front of the cast and sing the song.

Asked if he was intimidated, Hübbe responds, "Are you crazy? Singing in front of all my colleagues? It was awful. I kept getting the words mixed up. Some people laughed, and some said things like, `That''s not bad.'' Jerry thought, `This might work.'' He could tell that I had a decent voice, and you need very little range for `Cool.'' "

It took some time before Hübbe was at ease with the song. "At first I didn''t understand all the words," he says. "For instance, `You can live it up and die in bed'' is an American expression, and I didn''t know what it meant. And I was having trouble with the rhythms and with clarity. I had to work hard at sounding American."

Hübbe began to relax into the song when Robbins invited members of NYCB''s artistic staff and others to see a complete run-through of the ballet. "Everybody applauded when I finished, and that had never happened before," he says. "I rehearsed the song so much that by the time I performed it on opening night, it was actually fun."

In the Village Voice, Deborah Jowitt wrote, "I''d never have anticipated the in-depth Americanization of Hübbe, doing his own singing, with panache, in `Cool.'' " Hübbe also received praise from many of his colleagues, which moved and amused him. "Damian [Woetzel] would come back after each show and go, `The song was much better today,'' " he says with a laugh. " `You''re getting so comfortable.'' The truth is that it takes a lot of energy to sing and dance that song, and when I''m finished, I''m completely exhausted."

"West Side Story" is one of the seminal works in musical theatre history, and its significance is not lost on Hübbe. "It''s very special doing this," he says. "You could say that Jerry has two homes, Broadway and New York City Ballet. And it''s very touching to see this work move from one home to the other. Now "West Side Story" will live side by side with his "Afternoon of a Faun" and "The Cage" and all his other works, and that''s really wonderful. It''s great for him, for the company, for the audience and for dance history."

-- By Sheryl Flatow