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When Joshua Buscher speaks of Arthur Laurents, which he does frequently during our brief interview, it is with the reverent tone of a student quoting the teachers of a master. Which is exactly what Laurents is. At 90, he is very much the hands-on director of the legendary icon of American theater– West Side Story— the show he wrote over 50 years ago.

Since July, I have been trying to line up an interview with someone from the production of West Side Story’s revival. By now the play’s publicist and I have become virtual pen pals. After reading that the play would open for its pre-Broadway run right here in Washington D.C. (in the National Theater, the same venue it first opened at in 1957), I was determined to get the inside scoop on it. Through auditions, the New York rehearsals, and finally DC rehearsals, we continued our correspondence. Finally, just days before the opening of the first preview performance in mid-December, I am on the phone with cast member Buscher, who is enthusiastically describing his experience preparing for this historic revival.

Joshua Buscher

Joshua Buscher

What makes this revival of West Side Story so unique is language. Laurents’ late partner, Tom Hatcher, had seen the play staged entirely in Spanish in Colombia and found that it totally changed the dynamics– the Sharks became the heroes and the Jets the villains. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the two gangs somehow,” Laurents told the New York Times earlier this year, by having characters speaking amongst themselves in their native language.

Adding the Spanish into the show 100 percent makes it work,” says Buscher, “It helps so much with the energy of the show– what it does is makes that barrier of the Americans versus the Puerto Ricans even wider. Some of our audience can’t speak Spanish, so they get frustrated,” adding to the tension the audience will feel between the Sharks and the Jets. In case you’re one of those non-Spanish-speaking audience memeers, don’t worry– there will be supertitles. Although some scenes, such as the one preceding America, are mostly in Spanish, he is confident that the acting and dancing will transcend language.

Josefina Scaglione and Matt CavenaughOne thing I was dying to know was if Robbins’ choreography would be altered at all for greater cultural authenticity. Would the Puerto Ricans be adding some bomba or plena sabor to the dance numbers? Then again, no reason mess with a good thing (no, make that an amazing thing — West Side Story is in my book, hands down, the best dance musical ever, and the best music musical, for that matter). So what if the choreography of America is more flamenco than salsa? Joey McKneely, the reproduction choreographer did change some of the blocking and spacing in the piece to underscore the culturally adversarial give and take between the homesick girls and the girls that are trying to become Americanized (which explains why Anita will at times break into English even with her compatriots). It will be more about that interaction than an “and now folks, here’s the big dance number” performance to the audience; but Robbins’ choreography will remain intact.

This will be Buscher’s Broadway debut. He is Diesel, the “meathead” of the Jets– a surprise not only to me– going by his angelic headshot and cheery voice– but also to his family and friends. “It was kind of a process for me to get into that because I’m not really a meathead,” says Buscher. “But he’s come to life and it’s great. When we do the rumble scene it’s awesome. It’s very empowering for me to jump on stage and be able to protect the guys that are behind me.” Late bloomers, take heart. Although Buscher was a gymnast in his youth, he didn’t start dancing until he got to college, realizing it was important to his development as an actor. The audition process for West Side Story, which was six months long, really improved his technique. That plus an hour-long barre class before each day’s practice and the encouragement of McKneely and his assistant. “It helps that [Diesel] is a fighter because he’s not the most balletic boy; they did a nice job of casting if I do say so myself,” he says with a laugh.

West Side Story Rehearsal (with Cody Green)It is a young company, with many making their Broadway debut– with so much of the cast being made up of teenage gang members, that is a necessity. There are some seasoned veterans, of course, including Karen Olivo (Anita) who was most recently seen in In the Heights. Here’s another familiar face: Step It Up and Dance fans will recognize Cody Green in the role of Riff.

Six-month audition process aside, I want to know the nuts and bolts of getting a Broadway dance musical from studio to stage. “The first week of rehearsals was just dance, that’s all we did,” says Buscher. After a brief meeting with Laurents and the creative team, “literally an hour later we were on the floor learning Dance at the Gym.” Nary a libretto was cracked open for the first full week of practice as the dancers learned all the dance numbers. This allowed the choreography to become second nature so the dancers could focus on acting. Additionally, as lines, songs, acting and blocking were layered on, the choreography gained depth along with the process of character development.

Rehearsals started in New York City, going about six hours a day, six days a week for five weeks. The whole cast moved to DC for the final two weeks of rehearsal. After the dances were learned, important acting moments were added in, and vocal rehearsals. “The way Arthur and Joey McKneely work is they fill it up right in the beginning so you have time to grow,” says Buscher. Additional character development occurred after hours, as The Jets hung out together socially to get to know each other and figure out their relationships in the gang. Quoting Laurents again, he says, “He wants this to be an acting show. He says the dance number’s kind of nowhere if you’re not acting from somewhere.”

Arthur Laurents addresses the cast of West Side Story

By the time the cast got to Washington they felt comfortable enough with what they had to do to start taking more artistic risks. The hard work “pays off when you get the show at a place where you’re allowed to try new things on stage because you’re so comfortable with what you’re doing. That is where a show should be.”

With just hours remaining before his big Broadway show debut, I ask Buscher what we can expect. I’ve been able to tell from the tone of his voice during our conversation that there is a great deal of excitement and satisfaction with the process and anticipation for what is to come.” There’s a very high bar for this show and all of this are taking it on with full force. We are young we are energized and we’re dancing the crap out of this show.”


West Side Story runs through January 17, 2009 at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale through Telecharge (800) 447-7400, www.telecharge.com) or at the National Theatre Box Office (202-628-6161 www.nationaltheatre.org. It will open on Broadway on February 23.

I’ve been hoping to get a little more insight on his work, so I was thrilled when Helanius Wilkins, Founder and Artistic Director of Edgeworks Dance Theater, the DC-based all male dance company, agreed to answer a few of my questions. He’s been busy preparing for this weekend’s performance at the American Dance Institute, so he took my questions via email.

Maria: Let’s get the cliched question out of the way: influences. In past conversation you’ve mentioned Horton, Ailey, Bill T Jones, and martial arts as either influences or training grounds. Have you been dancing all your life? What motivates and inspires you?

Helanius J. Wilkins: While I have not been dancing all of my life, dance has always been a part of me. I do not feel that I chose dance, it chose me. It is a calling – and my career is the result of something far deeper than simply making the choice to dance. Life motivates me to dance. What I do is about life experiences, observations, and a quest to know and understand more in order to contribute to the shaping of a more socially just world.

M: In Cold Case, you faced head-on some of the brutal realities of race and racism in America. Can we expect the same frank treatment of sexuality and spirituality in [your newest work,] the determining factor? Where does this honesty come from?

HJW: Absolutely, I have no issues with addressing some of today’s most difficult issues. I believe that we are in a national crisis on so many fronts. Unless we become proactive about confronting these issues, things will never change. … The honesty comes from not being afraid to take risks – not being afraid to ask questions.

M: Community involvement was part of the foundation for the determining factor. How did that part of the process go and did it take you in any unexpected places?

HJW: Yes, the determining factor is in part the result of community collaboration. This collaboration was very enlightening, humbling, and exciting all at the same time. I have walked away with so much…And the journey is just beginning. Yes, unexpected places were a constant in the process. This made for a truly moving and wisdom filled experience.

M: In addition to the acclaim you have received for your work as an artist, it seems that you have attracted recognition from funders as well (your website has a long list of funding, recognition, and honors), including your recent feature of the Catalog of Philanthropy. Nonprofit management skills are key to making the jump from artistic genius to recognition and success. How have you balanced your choreography, teaching, and management responsibilities? What advice would you give to nascent dance companies looking build themselves as an organization?

HJW: Keeping my art first, staying connected to my passion for what I do, and being strategic about everything has been/is the key to the balancing of my responsibilities. These very things are the things I would also share with an emerging organization/artist.

M: You’re about to make your NYC debut (as a headliner) and have already had success touring domestically and internationally. What do you feel sets EDT apart to garner the attention it has, and what do you want the world to know about your work and your dancing? What are your plans for the future?

HJW: There are many things that I believe sets EDT apart from other companies. From being DC’s 1st all male contemporary dance company of predominately Black men to being the second in the nation of its kind to being a company focused on the often misunderstood voice of the african-american male. As much as our work is serious and honest it is entertaining and it reflects the stories and feelings of real people – real lives. Plans for the future: One step at a time.

***

You can see Helanius Wilkins and Edgeworks Dance Theater in a preview performance of the determining factor this weekend, May 2-3 @ 8pm at the American Dance Institute in Rockville, MD.

For tickets, go to www.americandance.org

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