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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre celebrates genius of Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim

| Wednesday, May 2, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers in “West Side Story.'
Duane Rieder
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers in “West Side Story.'

The image of a genius toiling in solitary concentration isn't an entirely false stereotype. But what happens when two or three geniuses try to work together? Sometimes the project doesn't get past first base because of personal friction. But when it does work ...

In 1957 choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim created “West Side Story” with an unprecedentedly large role for dancers and singing dancers. In 1961, the celebrated musical was made into an Oscar-winning film.

Robbins and Bernstein, both born in 1918, burst onto the scene in 1944 with their first collaboration on the ballet “Fancy Free” about three sailors on leave in New York City. It was the basis for Bernstein's musical “On the Town,” which won an Oscar for the 1949 film version.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present “A Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein Centennial Celebration” May 4-6 at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center. The program is “West Side Story” Suite, “Fancy Free” and “In the Night.” Charles Barker will conduct the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra.

When ballet artistic director Terrence Orr began planning this program he recalled all the Robbins ballets he'd danced for Robbins, and thought about the ones he hadn't as well. Robbins' output was tremendous, and included in addition to ballets such other hit musicals as “The King and I,” “Gypsy,” “Funny Girl” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Robbins had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but that's not the way Orr puts it.

“He was a perfectionist,” says Orr. “‘Difficult' is not the right word. He was very articulate and pushed people beyond the scope of what they thought they were capable of doing. When you finished dancing with Jerry you were a better dancer. He stretched the limits of technique and drama, and your heart. Sometimes he pushed people really hard, and some people can't take it as much as others. But I thought he was one of those incredibly gifted men that I felt really blessed to know and work with.”

The first Robbins/Bernstein collaboration on “Fancy Free” was a natural pick for this program for many reasons, including that Orr danced it many times and loves it.

“West Side Story” will be performed in a seven-movement suite, which includes the songs “Cool,” “America” and “Somewhere,” as well as the Mambo, Cha-Cha and Rumble dance numbers. The ballet's dancers have been coached by Julio Monge, who was in the original cast of the 1989 show “Jerome Robbins' Broadway.”

Wanted dancers to ‘own it'

“This was the last time Mr. Robbins touched ‘West Side Story,'” Monge says. “What I bring to rehearsals is information from him. He insisted he didn't want to recreate the piece. He wanted us to own it, like it was bring done for the first time. He used ‘method acting' understanding for us as actors, not only dancers. That's what I pass on. I talked about the shape of the piece, the story telling aspects and how important for Robbins combining the dancer aspects with the acting and interpretive parts of it.”

Orr never performed Robbins' 1970 ballet “In the Night” but fell in love with it when he saw it on a visit to Paris to do staging for Paris Opera. It consists of three duets set to four Mazurkas by Frederic Chopin, which will be played by the company's excellent pianist Yoland Collin.

“The first duet is very like young romance,” Orr explains. “The second dance is more like a mature romance. The third is a more contentious love. They really love each other very much but may not have the right timing for everything they do. They're all brought on in a coda intermingling the characters. It's absolutely beautiful.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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