Choreographer Justin Peck grew up with "West Side Story." The son of a New York City father and an Argentine immigrant mother, he was first shown the 1961 movie musical when he was very young — the family by then lived in California, and Peck thinks his parents were feeling nostalgic. "I was so enamored by what I witnessed," Peck said, in a Zoom interview earlier this month. "Seeing men perform and express themselves through movement was something I couldn't fully comprehend, but something I knew I wanted to seek out." He studied dance, came to New York at 15, and eventually became a member of New York City Ballet, where he is now acting resident choreographer.
But life came full circle a few years ago, when he was asked to create the choreography for Steven Spielberg's new movie of "West Side Story," filmed in 2019 and in theaters this week after a yearlong pandemic delay. Peck knew the original Jerome Robbins choreography intricately: Robbins, who died in 1998, was a longtime choreographer and ballet master for NYCB, and Peck frequently performed in "West Side Story Suite," a collection of dances Robbins adapted from the stage show. But Spielberg and Peck didn't want to simply recreate Robbins' work; their goal was to keep the iconic songs, but create something new with the dances.
"It kind of felt like an organic runway, leading up to this daunting task," Peck said. "I was able to trust that Jerome Robbins' legacy and voice was sort of running through my own. He's a personal hero of mine and definitely an influence on me as a choreographer, so I could sort of trust that and let go of the pressure to conscientiously pay homage to him. I knew it would come out naturally in my own work."
The new choreography, he said, is a kind of amalgamation, for which he took a good look at the original work and the film's 1950s time period "and then having the confidence to wrap that all up into my own voice and vision as an artist. I'm not a dance history stager. I'm interested in creating my own work and my own language as a choreographer. ... I wanted it to feel current and relevant and urgent for an audience of today."
With permission from the Robbins estate to go ahead with their own vision ("It was great to have that kind of faith in what we were doing"), Peck, with assistant choreographers Patricia Delgado and Craig Salstein, set about making the dances his own. The "Prologue" here is less a montage and more a linear exploration of daily life as a Jet, with dance as the language that binds them. "Cool," after "months and months" of meetings and discussions with Spielberg, was moved to earlier in the story and transformed into a dramatic confrontation at a pier. And "America," on a rooftop in the original film, spilled out into a sun-splashed street, celebrating the beauty of an immigrant neighborhood.
"That was one of the most ambitious numbers, and we kind of felt like we needed to go big or go home with it," Peck said. Ultimately shot over 10 days, the movement was inspired by Latin dance — "the transition from mambo to salsa" beginning to take place during that time — and by the drama taking place between two characters. As Bernardo and Anita argue, "once things get too heightened and there needs to be a release valve, that came in the form of a dance outburst, a dance expression, and a continuation of that argument through a release in their dance movement."
Involved with the film since its early days, Peck assisted in the monumental task of casting the film's dancers: more than 60 of them. All of them had to be "quadruple threats," Peck said — able to dance, sing, act and "project and communicate through the camera lens" — and, unlike in the earlier film, everyone playing a Puerto Rican character needed to be of Latino descent. The casting crew saw "thousands and thousands" of people, Peck said, describing multiple trips to Puerto Rico, Miami, and Los Angeles as well as numerous casting calls in New York. "It was really important to get it right and cast it authentically."
Once the cast was assembled, rehearsals and filming began. As in a dance company, each day on the set began with a company dance class, to "create a unified daily approach to how we went about our work ... to kind of align and check in with each other, and feel the sense of camaraderie in the room." That room, he said, was filled with "one of the most talent-filled casts that maybe there ever was ... I was constantly blown away and inspired daily by their talents and their commitment and their belief in this project, and I think you can feel that on the screen."
Now that "West Side Story" is finally available for audiences to see, Peck hopes it might change a few young lives. "I was personally just so inspired by seeing the original film as a young person, and it led me to find a life in dance that I'm so grateful for. I hope that this film can, in turn, inspire a whole next generation of dancers and performers and artists who hopefully see themselves on the screen and say, I want to do that."
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