Performing Arts: Theater
March 12, 2020
Part film part Broadway musical, Ivo van Hove’s gritty vision of West Side Story draws inspiration from America’s immigrant story of a burning desire to belong, to love and be loved.

The iconic overture floods the audience. Almost imperceptibly, a strip-of men claim their turf on the lip of the stage, commanding hard-ass stances and glaring at the audience. Anticipated finger-snaps are eliminated and instead, cameras zoom-in on the tattoos decorating bare body parts signifying the two warring tribes. No one smiles; this is serious business.

Hard urban, pounding steps shoot into flying kicks as jabs ripple from one dancer to another in an anarchic, physical roar. This is not Jerome Robbins’ beloved choreography, instead, it is an appropriation of today’s angst brought to you by the stripped-down, post modernist Flanders' dancer/choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

In the leads, Maria’s (Shereen Pimentel) operatic voice effortlessly soars into the dark sky. Vocally, she’s exquisitely matched with her true love Tony (Isaac Powell). In contrast to the wistful Maria and Tony, Anita (Yesenia Ayala) and gang leader Bernardo (Amar Ramasar) vibrate with sexual heat.

Speaking of darkness, rather than the sun drenched playgrounds of the original, this version pushes into a state of nearly perpetual darkness -- in large part because of the projections. The animated set/visual design by Luke Halls works best when enlarging intimate spaces like the miniature sewing room in the back corner of the stage and Doc’s (Daniel Oreskes) Pharmacy.

Audience members peer into the dress shop’s open door, but don’t discern any detail until the camera zooms into giddy women primping for the party, clothes popping with color and draped all around. Throughout the production, a videographer wanders around the stage grabbing close-up bits and movements simultaneously projected on the screen -- rock ‘n roll concert style.

For many, “The Dance at the Gym” is pivotal to West Side Story; frequently performed as a “stand alone” dance, audiences anticipate this apocryphal meeting between the star-crossed lovers Tony and Anita. How did this version fare? Well, the choreography leans towards street dance mixed with Capoeira (martial arts) style kicks, but the wit evaporates in place of hard-lined couple stamps and harsh partnering.

This time, a woman referee (who does not mine the inherent irony of the situation) presides over the fraught community dance that pits hot Latin social dancing against cooler American jive. On the hot side, dancers dig into the ground, hips unlock and eyes grip the opposite sex. On the cool side, Riff’s peeps throw down some strong acrobatic lifts that ultimately don’t read as sharply as the Sharks' propulsive beats.

A couple of the stand-out performers include the sharply lean Ramassar (formerly of NYC Ballet), his partner Pimentel --who definitely knows how to shake a ruffle -- plus Luis (Roman Cruz), an utterly steamy dancer who magnetizes the audience with his penetrating eyes and deeply grounded hip rumbles.

Another juncture where wit oils the lunacy of youthful rivalries occurs in the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number. This satiric ode to the beat officer loses its snarky “psychoanalytic” stance. Missing are the arm gestures, the vocal imitations and all-out goofiness.

Actually, humor is in very short supply in “America” and throughout the musical. No doubt this is serious business, but even in the bleakest of times, humor pokes out. Importantly, van Hove along with De Keersmaeker sew the movement into the text so when the dancers erupt, the action appears organic to their turf.

In the end, who really belongs in America? When is it OK to romance your enemies’ women? Skin color certainly doesn’t divide these two camps but what does? Perhaps this West Side Story presents a microcosm of what’s happening daily on a larger scale throughout America.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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