Joey McKneely makes ’West Side Story’ cool again
In the 1980s, Joey McKneely danced in "Jerome Robbins’ Broadway," a dance sampler that included the mambo number from "West Side Story." Robbins eventually chose the McNeely the keeper of "West Side Story’s" dance flames and he has done so ever since in productions all over the world. McKneely ("The Boy From Oz") reproduced the choreography for the 201l Tony winning 50th anniversary production of "West Side Story," the national tour of which mambos into Philly for a week at the Academy of Music.
The dances from the show are still "Remarkably fresh after 50 years," McKneely said by phone from Bordeaux, France, where he is premiering his new ballet scored to "An American in Paris" and "Rhapsody in Blue," for the Bordeaux National Opera Company.
The choreographer still looks as though he could pull off playing one of the older Jets and has both feet moving when he teaches "West Side Story’s" iconic dances. "I’m in ballet class all the time with the company. I’m a dancer, it’s my heart and soul. I have to stay connected to it on that physical level."
Making ’WSS’ more authentic
The revival brought together Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, the surviving members of the original creative team of the musical for this hit 2009 revival. (The out and proud Laurents died just last year at age 93.) For this production, some of the lyrics were reconceived with Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights") translations of some of the word and lyrics into Spanish to make them more authentic to the story and time. "There has been a lot made of the Spanish and it’s been a terrific addition, but it’s not a whole bilingual show now," McKneely explains.
"Arthur also wanted to address some choreographic changes, so it was a challenge to tweak the dance sequences; but mainly its all Robbins steps and specific style. When I teach it again on different companies, I just see again how well it works on new dancers," he said.
Was Robbins temperamental?
He remembers working with Robbins as a defining period in his life. "I was 20 when I worked with him. I didn’t realize at the time the depth of choreographic knowledge I was absorbing from him. It was that experience that I try to bring into ’West Side.’ Without having an intellectual knowledge of what I was doing, I had an emotional connection to it, and I bring that into my version of ’West Side.’"
At various times in his career Robbins had a reputation as temperamental, cold and even cruel. But McKneely notes that "the bad stories of Robbins were in his early career, I think, most of the New York City Ballet, for instance, see him quite differently." Robbins chose McKneely "out of the blue," he recalled. "My name got on the list of the people, then... La Scala Opera House called me to direct ’West Side’ and that was the start of it."
Making actors dancers
He has since directed it all over the world, most recently in Australia: "Casting as young as possible because they bring that energy and I try to lift them up technically, stronger that was done in the past," adding that schools are turning out more versatile dancers in this generation.
McKneely also trained Hugh Jackman for his turn as Peter Allen in "The Boy from Oz." "He’s a doll. But like these actors in ’West Side,’ he’s an actor and singer first. Same thing with Carolyn Levo, she’s not Chita Rivera, they are very different performers, so I created some moves for her to make her look stunning within the character."
"But this cast is actors and singers first. They can certainly move well. My job is to make them look like great dancers. With Hugh, there was tapping involved, for instance, but he’s so game and athletic he just goes after things with such Aussie gusto."
No arguing that.
"West Side Story" runs March 28 through April 8, 2012 at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, PA. Tickets: $20-$100. Information: 215-893-1999 or the Kimmel Center website.