“The question is how to make West Side Story for the 21st century,” according to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. That is the task before the Belgian choreographer and her director, Ivo Van Hove, for their upcoming Broadway revival, which begins previews December 10 at the Broadway Theatre.
Unlike previous revivals, this West Side takes place today—just like the 1957 West Side looked at its today. “The world has changed, America has changed, New York has changed, the notion of what identity and community means has changed, the relationship between men and women has changed,” says De Keersmaeker. “And yet this is the timeless story written by Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. The core of this story remains relevant.” So follows the vision for this take: “The Sharks are definitely Hispanic-rooted,” she continues, “but Hispanics of today are maybe not the same Hispanics as they were 50 years ago.” And van Hove and De Keersmaeker also cast a new lens on the Jets, who are not all white and of European descent as in the original. “We really chose for inclusion of the American population today.”
Likewise, De Keersmaeker’s movement marks a vast departure from the ballet-rooted original of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins—which is what van Hove and producer Scott Rudin had in mind when they hired her. She comes from contemporary dance, not ballet; European culture, not American—though in the ’80s she studied at the dance department of NYU. She approaches dance first through form and shape; she’s accustomed to “small constellations” of dancers. West Side Story, in theory, contrasts all of this.
But therein lies the new and the provocative—and the guiding principle of her choreography: “harmonizing opposites.”
In her movement vocabulary for the show, she harmonizes the vertical and horizontal. “In ballet, you’re constantly celebrating vertical posture and defying gravity on extension,” she says. “With the history of contemporary dance, post-modern dance, we came to a sense of reality that defying gravity is the history from [a crawling] child to somebody who’s growing up from animal to upright person.”
If Robbins’ dance floated up, De Keersmaeker’s shifts down and side to side. Arms slice through the air, bodies drop to the floor, anger and energy pulse traceably through the body. She blends Robbins’ classical style with floorwork signature of her own and a “presence of what dancing of today is—globalized culture of hip-hop, street dancing, house dancing.” Simultaneously, De Keersmaeker tethers herself to the music, “my main partner.”
Her choreography captures the conflict at the core of West Side Story, but also that quest for harmony dreamed up by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Robbins.
“The DNA of West Side Story is how music, dance, and theatre come together,” she says. And be it 1957 or 2019, Robbins or De Keersmaeker, that will never change.