West Side Story in Atlanta: An Interview with the Dance Captain

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West Side Story will be coming to the Cobb Energy Centre December 13-16. Although it is a reconstructed version of the musical theatre production that opened almost exactly 50 years ago in 1957, it has been updated a bit to feel more realistic to today’s audiences. West Side Story is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in mid-twentieth century New York City. The book is by Arthur Laurents, the music is by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim, the conception and choreography are by Jerome Robbins…the celebrity list goes on and on. Dance historians often comment that this musical heralded the acceptance of jazz dance as a distinct art form. It is important from many perspectives.

I spoke with Blue Cervini, co-dance captain for the show that will be in Atlanta in just over two weeks. She is an energetic, well-spoken young woman who plays Velma in the production. She grew up in a local dance studio in New Orleans, and told me she never expected to pursue musical theatre. But in one of those fairy-tale experiences every young dancer dreams about, she auditioned in New York City following a run of Cats on Long Island—and was cast! She commented that both shows are very dance-heavy, which makes them exciting for the dancers.

Depending on your age and dance experience, Jerome Robbins may be familiar to you as a prolific choreographer of over 60 ballets, a contributor to movie and television dance, a choreographer of more than 11 musicals—or you may find yourself surprised to discover some of the things he has done. He has won multiple Academy Awards, Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, Donaldson Awards, and New York Drama Critics Circle awards.

This is Blue Cervini’s first experience dancing a Robbins work. I asked her how similar it is to the 1957 musical. “Very similar,” she answered. “Joey McKneely [the reconstruction choreographer] is just a vessel of Jerome Robbins.” (McKneely had his introduction to Robbins’ work in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.) “Even though he has set this work many times and all around the world, you see no complacency. Everything feels fresh and inspiring. This show is inspiring.” Ms. Cervini commented that the choreography is very technically-based, so ballet training is “very beneficial. As a dance captain, I feel very responsible for that. We have a ballet warm up or class every day. We really have to stay on top of our technique.”

I asked her what she liked best about working on this show. “I don’t know where to start!’ she answered. “It is the classic of all classic shows. There is intense energy; there’s ultimate love and intense hate. It’s just electric; you’re always on edge. We are so aware of how special this show is, and so honored to be a part of it. We’re just so lucky to be working with this music and choreography and this very special show. It’s an incredible experience.”

Ms. Cervini characterizes the show as a timeless story. “It’s relevant in every day and time. It’s been slightly revamped. There’s more Spanish included,” in this reconstruction, to make it more real.

“This is such brilliant work, so knowing that I must justify the work [is my greatest challenge.] It makes us all want to push ourselves to represent [the show] as it was meant to be.” Part of that includes “maintaining our bodies,” which can be a difficult task on the road.
“I really like to mix things up,” Blue Cervini commented when asked about the challenges in her dance career as a whole. “I didn’t have as much exposure as someone in a major metropolitan dance center. I had no real vision—I was pursuing a dance career without having a clear picture of where I was headed. Finding where I want to go—which should I pursue first? I love going into a new class where I don’t know anything about it. I like everything; I’m interested in contortion, too.”

“We are really excited to be in the South!” She was speaking to me from a hotel room in Florida. I asked her if there was anything she would like Atlanta to know before they come to the show. “It’s the ultimate love story, but there’s also comedy and action. It’s filled with energy. Not only for me, but for the whole cast: we feel it’s great to share this show with someone outside. It’s a gift to be able to share this great American classic.”

If you want to find out more about the production or the cast, browse the company’s website. First, though, I recommend you order your tickets. The musical is recommended for everyone ages 13 and over. Like Blue Cervini, herself, Atlanta grew up without being a major metropolitan dance center. When there is a classic in our town, we should take advantage of it. I’ll be there for opening night, watching to see how this vibrant personality shines from the stage, and how this reconstruction compares with other productions I have seen. I know I’ll see you there.

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