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I fell in love with George Chakiris the moment I saw him in the movie West Side Story. With a dignified, controlled sexiness as the leader of the Sharks, he captured my heart—and that of millions of other Americans—in 1961. When he danced Bernardo, who fought for the rights of the Puerto Rican immigrants as a gang kid, you immediately sided with him. And who could forget his cool defiance when, ordered to leave the bar by the Jets and the cops, he sauntered past them whistling “My Country Tis of Thee”?
Miami City Ballet, too, has declared its love for Chakiris. Lourdes Lopez invited him to host their gala this Friday, on Valentine’s Day. (Read this artsmeme post to see how much Lopez admires him.) The occasion is the company premiere of West Side Story Suite, Jerome Robbins’ string of scenes from that powerful musical. Although it’s not the full length version, this ballet packs an emotional punch. The cultural tensions, the dance at the gym, the forbidden love, the gang violence, and the hope of “somewhere” are all there.
Miami City Ballet's Jennifer Kronenberg as Graziella with Jeremy Cox as is Riff in the "Dance at the Gym"
Photo by Daniel Azoulay.
Chakiris, who is Greek (he wore dark makeup in WSS to appear more Latino) had played Riff in London for more than a year before being cast as Bernardo, a role he won an Oscar for. In this clip his explains that it wasn't hard to switch from Riff to Bernardo because he had become so familiar with all the roles.
MCB's Reyneris Reyes as Bernardo with Sara Esty as Anita
Photo by Daniel Azoulay.
It turns out that, in addition to being a star actor and dancer in the movie, Chakiris also contributed costume ideas. Read this interview with Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar the same night for her role as Anita.
But there’s an irony in the Chakiris/WSS Suite connection: One of the numbers where he was so memorable—singing “America” on the rooftop—included him only in the film (1961), not in the musical (1957). In WSS Suite, which was first arranged for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), Robbins returned to the original version and made “America” be just among the Shark women, excluding the men. Either way, it's a fabulously raucous number, in which Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and Leonard Bernstein's music whip up a storm of song and dance embodying the immigrant's dilemma.
No doubt the magic of galas will bring Chakiris to many people in Florida who were smitten with him on screen in West Side Story—or any other movies he appeared in. For me, that magic happened in 2003 at a Career Transition For Dancers gala, at which I got to meet my hero.