‘West Side Story’ takes Maryland dancers on a European adventure
For a musical to resonate on an international level more than 50 years after its original Broadway debut demonstrates the brilliance of its creators.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story battled its way onto Broadway from a vision of updating Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for a beatnik and ballet proficient generation. Many Tony nominations followed in 1957, resulting in a win for Robbins’ choreography, but it lost the “Best Musical” award to the wholesome River City, Iowa spectacle The Music Man. The film adaptation fared much better earning ten Academy Awards including “Best Picture” in 1961.
All of this happened long before our two subjects jetéd into their parent’s lives. Courtney Ortiz and Nicholas Sipes joined the international touring cast earlier this year bringing the original magic of West Side Story to the European stage. The following interview was conducted in August, just before a short break brought them home to the States. They head back to Germany in October and finish out 2012 in Paris.
Please introduce yourselves, where you grew up, and your dance background.
COURTNEY ORTIZ: My name is Courtney Ortiz, I am 23 years old and a professional dancer who now resides in New York City. I grew up in Jarrettsville, MD and studied dance my entire life at the Mid Atlantic Center for the Performing Arts in Joppa, MD, also known as Hotshots National Dance Team. I was a competitive dancer and trained in multiple styles including, ballet, jazz, tap, modern, contemporary, lyrical, hip hop, theatre and more.
NICHOLAS SIPES: I’m Nicholas Sipes, grew up in Baltimore, MD. At an early age, I began dancing at a local studio in Maryland and began dancing with Courtney at the same studio around the age of 11. It wasn’t until I went to The Baltimore School for the Arts as a dance major that I became very serious about dance and realized I could pursue a career in dance. When I was a senior in high school, I left Baltimore and moved to New York City to attend the year-round program at the prestigious School of American Ballet. I spent two years training at SAB where I received the final polish I needed for my technique in order to get a job in a ballet company. I was hired by The Pennsylvania Ballet into their 2nd Company after leaving SAB. I spent two years in the 2nd until I was promoted into the main company. I danced in the main company for two year before I decided to leave and pursue other job opportunities in the dance world. I went on to audition for my first Broadway show and booked it! I joined the cast of Billy Elliot‘s 2nd National Tour. I toured with the show for nine months and performed in 13 different cities in the US. My tour closed in August 2011 and from there I joined the Broadway cast the same week my tour closed. I was a part of the Broadway cast until the show closed in January 2012. In May 2012, I joined the international touring cast of West Side Story.
So… the photos of the production look fantastic… can you tell us more about the Deutsche West Side Story production? What role/character(s) do you play?
CO: Thank you! This production of West Side Story is fantastic. The cast I feel is so spot on with each character; they did a really good job casting it. We are also performing the original choreographed version of the show and not the revival version that performed on Broadway. In the show, I am one of the Jet Girls named “Minnie.” I also am the Assistant Dance Captain to the cast!
NS: The role I play is Gee-Tar. I’m a Jet Boy in the Jet ensemble.
What’s a typical day look like for you between rehearsals and shows?
CO: Normally, if we don’t have rehearsals, a typical day consists of arriving two hours before the show starts. Our call time is 6pm for an 8pm show. We either have a 45 minute Ballet or Stretch class which alternates every other day, followed by a vocal warm up. At 7pm, one hour before places, we have a “fight call” which the Dance Captain runs all of the safety fights in the show and makes sure everything is nice and safe. Between 7pm and 8pm, all the girls are in hair and makeup and everyone does their own thing to prepare themselves for the show, whether it’s stretching, singing or listening to their iPods. At places, we usually do a Jets Huddle and a Shark huddle to make sure we have a good show that night!
NS: Our typical schedule during rehearsals was ballet class or stretch class from 9:30–10am, rehearsal from 10–1:30, lunch from 1:30–2:30 and then more rehearsal from 2:30–6. That was the general schedule for us for five weeks, six days a week, Tuesday-Sunday, with Monday being our day off.
What were some of the factors that went in to your decision to audition for this tour?
CO: I have been auditioning for this tour since 2009. Back then, I knew that West Side Story was a very dance heavy show, and because I am primarily a dancer, I figured I might have a good shot at it. In 2009, I got very close to booking the job, and that pushed me to continue auditioning for it and not giving up. I also have always auditioned as a Shark Girl for the past 2 years. This year i decided to go to the Jet girl audition and ended up finally booking it. It’s funny how it worked out that way. But I was very determined to get this job and I’m proud of myself that I finally got it! I also wanted to travel and tour the world, and do original Jerome Robbins choreography.
NS: I’ve always loved West Side Story and it’s always been a dream of mine to be a part of a production of this show. When I was at SAB I was able to see New York City Ballet perform on a nightly basis and one of the ballets they performed was West Side Story Suite. After seeing the company perform this ballet it reiterated the fact that I needed to be a part of this show. Being a dancer, the choreography that was created by Jerome Robbins, really spoke to me. To know that he created this show in the late 1950’s and the choreography still looks new and current today just shows what a genius of a choreographer Jerome Robbins is.
Is this your first international tour? Have you done any other national or international tours before?
CO: This is not my first international tour. I performed in a show last year called The Aluminum Show which took me to Madrid, Spain for six weeks.
NS: This is my first international tour, but I have been on tour in the US with the show Billy Elliot
As a dancer on a traveling production of a musical, do you fulfill any other roles on or off stage that would usually be filled by others on a non-traveling production with a larger cast and crew?
CO: Yes. This entire show is interesting because usually casts have “swings” and their jobs are to be the fill in’s and know everyone’s roles in the show in case someone is injured or sick and calls out. On this tour, we all are pretty much “swings.” Each cast member is required to know multiple things outside of their usual role, just in case someone is out that night and needs to be filled in. Everyone pretty much knows everything, unless you were specifically told not to learn something. We all work together as a team to fill in and make things work in the show. It makes things more interesting, and a bit harder on us to have to know multiple sections in the show, but that’s how it’s set up on this specific tour. I personally have to know the entire show inside and out because I am the Assistance Dance Captain. So I also have a lot to remember.
NS: I do not have a set job that I do offstage. I sometimes fill in to teach ballet class if our normal teacher is out from the show that night.
Are most of the cast and crew from the United States or is it a mix of American and international members?
CO: A majority of the cast is from the United States. People are from all over the country though and we have a younger cast. For a lot of people, it’s their first big job. However, we have two Canadians, one of which is one of our Tony’s. And our Maria and Bernardo are both from Spain.
NS: We do have a couple of people from Australia and Austria too. The production company we work for is based in Germany, so most of our backstage and management team are all European.
What’s it like performing in a very well-known American musical for a non-native English speaking audience?
CO: It’s interesting. Our show is completely in English, and we have subtitles of the dialogue being displayed above the stage for the audience to read in German. It’s quite interesting to hear how they respond to certain things throughout the show. It’s been harder in cities where English isn’t spoken often, because instead of understanding the show, those audience members have to constantly read the subtitles. Some of the jokes aren’t understood here either. We’ve been told many times to slow down our dialogue for the audience to understand clearer. It’s been difficult, but the audiences LOVE West Side Story and always give us a great applause at the end.
NS: In every city we’ve had an amazing response from the audience. Most nights we receive standing ovations, which is not common in European theaters. There is also a tradition in Europe that if the audience loved the show they will clap in unison in a steady beat. When we receive this honor, it is so thrilling and gives me goosebumps every time.
Have there been any changes made to the traveling production so that it played better specifically for Germans?
CO: There have been no changes made from what I’m aware of, besides the added subtitles in German above the stage throughout the show.
A traveling production of Arthur Laurents’ West Side Story revival came through Baltimore last spring, which kept some of the newly added Spanish dialogue. Is this the same revival production and if so, are there other changes that were kept, which differ from the original?
CO: This is NOT the same revival production. This is the original choreography and version of West Side Story. The revival didn’t do as well as expected, but because the revival on Broadway was finished, the national tour continued on with the revival version of the show throughout the States. The international tour isn’t afflicted.
NS: Our director, Joey McKneely, was lucky enough to work with Jerome Robbins first hand while working on “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” He gave us a lot of insight on Jerome Robbins and his thoughts behind movements in West Side Story. It was such an amazing experience to learn steps from someone who learned them from Jerome Robbins himself.
What has been the most memorable experience of this tour so far?
CO: My most memorable experience so far has to be our first preview for the first time ever in Berlin. It was technically our first performance in front of an audience and everything finally came together. We were so busy and so pushed for time by the end of the rehearsal process that our opening night and first previews came so quickly. We all didn’t seem ready to perform for an audience yet as we were still fixing things, changing positions, changing partners, etc. But we all worked together, made it work and I had an unbelievable experience on stage. It was breathtaking to see it all finally come together with the set, props and costumes. Truly a moment I’ll never forget and made me realize how grateful I am to be performing such a well known show throughout the world.
NS: The most memorable moment on tour so far has to be the first opening night in Berlin. I don’t think the excitement or adrenaline that I felt during that show could ever be recreated again. It was finally our time to show the world what we’ve been working on so hard for so long. I’ll never forget the way the audience reacted to our show from start to finish. The roar the audience gave us at the end of the show gave me goosebumps and made me feel so proud to be apart of this show. It solidified the fact that I was finally a part of a show I have always dreamed about and wanted to be apart of.
So what’s next for you two?
CO: After a [five week layoff], we return back to Essen, Germany for two weeks in October and then head straight to Paris, France where we will perform through the Holidays and close on New Years Day 2013. We have just found out that a second leg is beginning in June 2013 and goes to places such as Naples, Italy, London, England and possibly Tel Aviv and Madrid. We will have a six month break between the first and second legs, so I still am not sure if I will be continuing on after such a long hiatus or moving on to the next gig. I look forward to auditioning in the city over the six month break and judging at dance competitions around the country. I also teach around the country with a dance convention so I am looking forward to doing that again this year.
NS: What’s next? Well we’re about to have a short layoff from the tour and will back in the U.S. until early October. Then we go back to Essen for two weeks and then we are off to Paris! We will be in Paris for 10 weeks! I’m so excited and can’t wait to see the city.
– Stokely Baksh and Tim Smith contributed to this interview.