Performing Arts: Dance
June 6, 2022
In West Side Story, composer Leonard Bernstein uses what, in Western music, is understood as a dissonant harmonic interval to aurally symbolize the plot’s tensions. Alternatively, this same interval (the tritone) is a common feature of the Jewish music Bernstein grew up hearing. In Somewhere, choreographer Doug Varone exploits a similar duality in the score itself as an (excerpted and instrumental) whole: Yes, it is the music from West Side Story, a groundbreaking musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but it is also just music – music that is really fun to dance to.

The concept is daring, considering the savage territoriality of New York’s musical theatre fandom; however, when one considers Varone’s interests and track record as a choreographer, it makes perfect sense. Varone is clearly aware of this, and has offered many an Easter egg that prevent Bernstein’s orchestral selections from being totally divorced from their source material.

The exposed brick of The Joyce stage’s back wall immediately conjures vintage NYC alleyways. The costumes read as pajama variants of 50’s street gang-wear. Aya Wilson, who opens the work, exudes Anita’s aura. Speaking as a musical theatre lover myself, this effort to include aesthetic handholds for purists prevents the work from fully achieving its simple (and pure) purpose of repurposing.

Still, Varone succeeds at a symbiotic relationship between mediums – he gets to choreograph an iconic score, and West Side’s musical details we either take for granted or overlook altogether get their chance in the limelight. Varone achieves this with his tried-and-true method of visualizing musical texture, often assigning bodies as direct correlates to instruments and lines.

The raucousness of “The Dance at the Gym” is allowed to be fully embodied as such, rather than as a utilitarian accompaniment to an evening social at a time when people socially danced in a certain way, as heightened by Jerome Robbins. We forget the musical gunshots interspersed in the chromatic fugue of “Cool” when dancers simply follow Bernstein’s dizzying entrances. We can (and do) still revere Robbins; there is simply more we can do.

The challenge to strip away and replace a score’s primary association allows Somewhere to succeed at what Rise attempted in 1993 (and as this program’s finale). John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries is stuffed with fun sounds and grooves, but it lacks the overall cohesion and dance-readiness guaranteed by distilling a hit Broadway score into defined selections (quite literally “symphonic dances”).

The same trademark-Varone swings and swells of sprawling movement, slicing through space in shimmering swirls that somehow come to crystalline order are relatively at odds with and at the mercy of a long piece of music concerned more with its own formalism than riding momentum.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews-Guzman

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