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Manhattan: Stories from the West Side – BARE Dance Company

by Rachel Levin
April 4, 2009
Gothic Moon Studio
535 W. Palm Ave.
Orange, CA 92866
714-453-0970
The musical "West Side Story" tells a tale of star-crossed love as old as "Romeo and Juliet," its Shakespearean source material. Yet transferring the archetypal story from Renaissance Verona to the streetwise milieu of Manhattan tenements in the 1950s imbued it with an entirely new relevance for a modern audience.

Mike Esperanza and his company BARE Dance have taken the adaptation to yet another level. In "Manhattan: Stories from the West Side," Esperanza has reinterpreted not the narrative but rather the aesthetics of Jerome Robbins' choreography, playing on the attitudes and gestures of "cool" in the musical. Told entirely through movement (the dancers do not act or sing) and Esperanza's original musical compositions, the two-act program is structured according to Robbins' scene list for the stage production of West Side Story, labeled by location: Hideout, Street, Balcony, Playground, Drugstore, Alley, Cellar, and Rooftop.

As befits a story of young love, the company is dewy with youth – many members are current college students or recent graduates. They may look like they've just stepped out of an Anthropologie catalog, but the fiery intensity they bring is just what is needed for this slinky, ultra-mod production. An exceptionally strong performance is turned in by Alex Crow, who plays a sort of post-punk Maria (or Juliet, as it were) with short raven hair.

Though there are the inevitable finger snaps, Esperanza has departed entirely from Robbins' big jazzy numbers, creating something sleek and fresh. With a background in graphic design, Esperanza is known for the unique visual construction he renders on stage, and "Manhattan" is no exception. Here the Sharks – dressed in warm reds and purples — and the Jets – clad in cool greens and blues — duke it out choreographically on two "blacktops" set against a bare white wall with lighting design provided by Jason Kuzia.

In Esperanza's hands, West Side Story unfolds as a tale of love and basketball. With basketballs as props, the two rival gangs first explore their contested turf. It's a meditation on the poetry of athleticism; Esperanza finds an apt movement metaphor for the Sharks/Jets conflict in the guarding, double teaming, and huddling of b-ball. His lovers' duet, too, is novel. Tony and Maria first explore the territory of each others' bodies seated amongst a quartet of dancers with legs in the air a la Busby Berkeley's kaleidoscope kicks. Their nervous twitching represents the circle of tension that circumscribes the smitten couple.

The remainder of the scenes are compelling journeys through the Sharks' and Jets' rallies for solidarity and preparation for battle. The dancers frolic to Esperanza's tribal/electro soundtrack with the dexterity and mischief of the Wicked Witch's monkeys, to borrow a metaphor from another classic story. In the end, clad all in white, the gangs morph into angels, the final spectators to the lovers' forbidden and tragic romance.

Esperanza has achieved his goal of bringing contemporary aesthetics to this timeless story. Moreover, he creates a rich world with simple visual and aural cues that succeed in capturing the indescribable ache of modern love, mediated as it is by social stratification, electronic stimulation, and urban alienation.
Alex Crow and Chad Van Ramshorst in 'Manhattan'

Alex Crow and Chad Van Ramshorst in "Manhattan"

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler


The Sharks in 'Manhattan'

The Sharks in "Manhattan"

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

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