PNB to play it cool in "West Side Story Suite"
Broadway song and dance comes to McCaw Hall as Pacific Northwest Ballet's Broadway Festival gets under way. On the lineup: "West Side Story Suite," "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," "Carousel: A Dance" and more.
Seattle Times arts writer
"West Side Story"The 1957 Broadway musical written by Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," updated to the gritty streets of New York. It became a movie in 1961, winning 10 Academy Awards. The main characters are:
Tony: A member of the Jets, a street gang, who falls in love with . . .
Maria: A young woman in love with Tony — and also the younger sister of Bernardo, head of the Sharks (archrivals of the Jets).
Riff: Tony's best friend, leader of the Jets.
Anita: Bernardo's girlfriend and Maria's friend, torn between her loyalties.
Broadway Festival7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and March 19-21; 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. March 22; Pacific Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$155 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).
SIFF Cinema also joins the Broadway Festival with five special screenings. "On Your Toes," the 1939 film in which the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet appears, screens 7:30 p.m. Friday; 1956's "Carousel," featuring Gordon McRae and a young Shirley Jones, screens at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; "West Side Story" screens at 2 and 7:30 p.m. next Sunday, 321 Mercer St., Seattle (206-324-9996 or www.siff.net).
A great American musical turns up in an unexpected place this week: Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story Suite," a half-hour mosaic of the 1957 Broadway hit, will be performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet as part of the company's Broadway Festival, opening Thursday. The frenetic mambo of "Dance at the Gym"; the finger-snapping rhythms of "Cool"; the whirling kicks of "America" — it's all here, along with something not usually part of the package for ballet dancers: singing.
For dancers who've spent their careers as a silent presence onstage, raising a voice in song can be an intimidating prospect, and some PNB dancers declined to even attempt a solo singing audition. But most of the company bravely marched into a studio one by one and sang at auditions last year, held with New York-based vocal coach Joan Barber.
"A lot of them had never sung, except maybe in a junior-high-school choir, so the audition experience was the most difficult thing for them," said Barber. "To stand alone in front of video camera and sing the song — for many of them, that was terrifying."
One trembling dancer was so nervous that Barber put a consoling arm around her, and they sang together. "It was wonderful; I could feel her energy pulsing," said Barber. "We shared the experience together."
Artistic director Peter Boal, who sat in on most of the auditions, explained the anxiety. "So many of them had sort of perfected how they are seen as dancers, and how they are physically seen as people — and suddenly there's this whole other element."
Boal was happily surprised by some of the voices, particularly noting corps de ballet dancers Leah O'Connor, Leanne Duge and Laura Gilbreath. Principal dancer Carla Körbes will sing/dance Anita at most of the performances. (Louise Nadeau, who was to share the role, has been injured but, Boal hinted, may sing the role late in the run.)
Among the men, the role of Riff will initially be shared by principal Jeffrey Stanton and soloist Seth Orza in the first week, with Lucien Postlewaite possibly tackling the role later in the run.
"We'd pictured Lucien as a Tony, but he has an amazing voice so he's also learning Riff," said Boal. (In "West Side Story Suite," Tony is a purely dancing role; his solos are sung by a guest vocalist.)
Barber noted that "West Side Story Suite," assembled by Robbins for the New York City Ballet in 1995, is meticulously designed to be performed by a ballet company. The songs "America" and "Cool," she said, "are on a speech level. They're designed to be sung by dancers. They're not opera arias. They were written very cleverly so that they could be sung by people who are out of breath. There's no way you can sing this full-throated (hereshebreaksintoahilariouslyoperatic"ILIKETOBEINAMEEEERICA...) — nobody's going to sing it like that."
The solos in "Somewhere" and "Something's Coming" will be performed by guest singers, as they were at the New York City Ballet. Barber, in fact, sang "Somewhere" for the ballet's debut 14 years ago. (The guest soloists at PNB, from the 5th Avenue Theatre, include Wesley Rogers, Gary Cannon, Anne Eisendrath, Billie Wildrick, Jeanette D'Armand and Candice Donehoo, with the latter three performing Broadway tunes in the lobby at intermission.)
The entire dancing ensemble joins in to sing the finale, a reprise of "Somewhere."
Barber says dancers have a number of advantages in learning to sing. "They're physically trained and physically aware. They're also disciplined," she said.
Accustomed to the rigors of daily class, dancers know how to isolate a movement and practice it to perfection. "They can look at themselves in the mirror and divorce their instrument from their personality," said Barber, "whereas an actor has a very difficult time doing that."
To help the dancers improve their voices in a short time, Barber turned to an array of vocal exercises she has honed over years of teaching and performing. She compared the exercises to physical work in a ballet studio. "If you do a développé (a high unfolding of the leg) correctly, over a course of a week, under the guidance of the right teacher, with your muscles lined up and everything correct, by the end of that week your body with muscle memory has learned something. And that's what these exercises that I teach are for, to train the muscles of the body."
Barber said she was thrilled with the voices she heard at PNB, but not particularly surprised. "You take any number of young people who are dancers, in this generation, who have been exposed to musical theater and pop music, and you will find a Riff, you will find an Anita, you will find a Rosalia. You just will. Because they've been singing along to pop music all their lives. Not professionally, but the way everybody sings to the radio. It's that kind of music."
The Broadway Festival opens Friday and continues through March 22. In addition to "West Side Story Suite," each performance includes Christopher Wheeldon's "Carousel: A Dance" and George Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" (both PNB premieres) and Susan Stroman's "Take Five," created for the company last year.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published March 8, 2009, was corrected March 9, 2009. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated singer Jeannette D'Armand's last name as Darmond.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
NEW - 7:04 PM
Toy-maker shifts gears into sculpting career
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.