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Introduction to Symphonic Dances

Here’s all you need to know about Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances, our second major collaboration with leading contemporary dance company Phoenix Dance Theatre…

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Who was the composer?

Composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was a giant of American musical theatre.

His smash hit West Side Story, inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but set on the streets of New York among rival gangs, marked a real theatrical turning point when it premiered in 1957. Its extended dance sequences and focus on real social issues were among many things that broke new ground, and it was an enormous commercial success.

Leonard Bernstein c. 1955

How did it come about?

Bernstein began assembling the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in early 1961, initially for a New York Philharmonic fundraising gala concert.

His collaborators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had both just worked on West Side Story for its film version, suggested sections of the score to include and assisted with the orchestration, with Bernstein overseeing the overall edit. The result is these nine movements:

Prologue (Allegro moderato)
Somewhere (Adagio)
Scherzo (Vivace e leggiero)
Mambo (Meno Presto)
Cha-Cha (Andantino con grazia)
Meeting Scene (Meno mosso)
‘Cool’ Fugue (Allegretto)
Rumble (Molto allegro)
Finale (Adagio)

Matthew Topliss and Meg Lumsden in rehearsals for West Side Story Symphonic Dances © Camilla Greenwell

What is the music like?

The movements of the Symphonic Dances do not not appear in the order they do in the show – Bernstein re-arranged them to form an entirely new, continuous sequence for musical reasons. The result is more weight on the music associated with gang conflict than on the love story. However, you’ll spot two of the most popular romantic numbers: “Somewhere” and “Maria” (in the Cha-Cha section).

To bring the dance rhythms of West Side Story zinging to life, Bernstein and his orchestrators used colourful instrumental combinations, a vast percussion section (including bongos, cowbells, maracas and a police whistle), and even the voices of the orchestra members – who have to shout “mambo”! Like the musical, the suite ends with a haunting, unresolved chord.

“The music is so dynamic and full of movement, it’s hard not to get carried away by its energy as it packs such a powerful and emotional punch!”Choreographer Dane Hurst

What is the choreography like?

This new work by South African-born Dane Hurst (Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre) stars 12 dancers. It is independent of the narrative of West Side Story, but explores a lot of the same underlying themes such as conflict and violence, young people’s need to find their identity in a group, and their dreams and aspirations. In particular, the work uses the early years of apartheid in South Africa (1950s­-60s), that time of enforced racial segregation, injustice, and conflict, as its catalyst:

“I think dance can make us see ourselves in the characters on stage and cause us to ask what are we doing, what have we done, how are we behaving in terms of where the world is going.” — Choreographer Dane Hurst

Artistic Director Dane Hurst in rehearsals for West Side Story Symphonic Dances © Camilla Greenwell

What are the set and costumes like?

The rough edges of city life are portrayed by a hard set of wood and metal, with walls that move and facilitate the idea of division in the piece – us and them, male and female, black and white. Dancers both crash into these walls and use them for support.

The set has been painted by graffiti artist Hyro in vibrant colours (at work below), which contrasts with the monochrome palette of the rest of the production, while costumes have a 1960s feel.

West Side Story Symphonic Dances will be presented in a double bill with Bernstein’s short opera Trouble in Tahiti. Linking the two pieces will be a reading of a new poem by literary activist and theatre maker Khadijah Ibrahiim. Join in on social media with #BernsteinDoubleBill


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