'West Side Story' choreographer Justin Peck explains the film's dances Six decades after the film West Side Story premiered, the legendary musical has been reimagined. Choreographer Justin Peck updated the dances of the original story.

How choreographer Justin Peck helped reimagine 'West Side Story' for the 21st century

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sixty years after the first film version, director Steven Spielberg has reimagined the legendary musical "West Side Story." NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg asked the film's choreographer about working with Spielberg and taking on the iconic dances of Jerome Robbins.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: How dare they? Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner - how dare they tinker with such a classic?

JUSTIN PECK: They both approached this with a sense of reverence and admiration for the original material.

STAMBERG: So did he - Choreographer Justin Peck. Even on tough days in 100 degrees on killer hot New York City streets, the dancers and crew of "West Side Story" performed on broiling cement, concrete, bricks, stairs. Peck says everybody pushed along together in sweaty chaos.

PECK: I remember Steven turning to me at one point and saying, there's nowhere else I'd rather be than here right now working on this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "'WEST SIDE STORY' PROLOGUE")

STAMBERG: This is Spielberg's first movie musical - Peck's, too. He's designed 35 dances for stage and is resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet. But movies? Well - but he has Spielberg. They work closely together. Justin watched the director read pages of words on the screenplay...

PECK: And immediately transpose that into visual language.

STAMBERG: Spielberg made quick, crude sketches like storyboards to show what he wanted the camera to see. Peck adjusted his dancers accordingly. That was the most exciting part for Justin Peck to discover...

PECK: How visual he is as an artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "'WEST SIDE STORY' PROLOGUE")

STAMBERG: Onstage in 1957 and in the 1961 film, Jerome Robbins' dances for the rival gangs and their girls were all snapping fingers, flashing teeth, flicking of skirts, tossing of heads - attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "'WEST SIDE STORY' PROLOGUE")

STAMBERG: Justin Peck makes the dances more menacing. The newly arrived Puerto Rican Sharks swagger and scorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "'WEST SIDE STORY' PROLOGUE")

STAMBERG: Peck danced the role of Bernardo, the Sharks' leader, when he was younger. He knows Robbins' choreography cold. The Irish and Italian Jets have lived in their broken-down neighborhood for years. Today it's Lincoln Center. It's their turf - or has been. Justin Peck gives different movements to each gang. Instead of swagger, the Jets are more complicated.

PECK: There's a kind of explosiveness and like a danger and a unity.

STAMBERG: Dancing close together, the Jets move as one, bonded, as if for security.

PECK: They're being really pushed out of this neighborhood. They don't have jobs. They don't have a sense of, like, what the future holds. And so all they have is one another and the kind of, quote-unquote, "family" that they consider their gang to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JET SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Riff, singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day.

STAMBERG: Composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim gave America and the World this spirited fight song, the Sharks arguing the merits of their new country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Bernardo, singing) I think I'll go back to San Juan.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Anita, singing) I know a boat you can get on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Bye-bye.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Bernardo, singing) Everyone there will give big cheer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Anita, singing) Everyone there will have moved here.

PECK: As the tension rises and the kind of, like, pressure between them gets higher, when the words fail and there needs to be some steam that's let off, it lifts off into dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Hey, hey, hey, hey.

STAMBERG: The argument becomes the dance. The movement continues the story. Choreographer Justin Peck, director Steven Spielberg and scores of others sweep original choreographer Jerome Robbins and Shakespeare's "Romeo And Juliet" into a new century.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN AND STEPHEN SONDHEIM SONG, "AMERICA")

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