Friday, September 16, 2011

Minsk Journal: West Side Story - Images

Friday, September 16th, 2011
Minsk, Belarus

I'm trying to figure out how to explain the currency situation here. Unless you've been to a place where its seriously uneconomical to print paper below a certain denomination because, you know, its not worth anything, then I'm not sure how to put this into context.

Try this: last night I spent 34,000 Belarussian Rubles on a cheeseburger. That's not a typo. Jason Ignacio, our Associate Artistic Director and my collaborator on West Side spent 35,000 on a Guinness. Yes, he spent more on a beer than I spent on dinner (can you say exchange rate problems with imported merchandise), but, that aside, together we spent over 100,000 on two cheeseburgers, one beer, two cokes and bottled water. Ummm....

What, exactly, do you do with that? And two days ago the currency was devalued essentially by half. The official exchange rate went from 5,000 to the dollar to 8,500 to the dollar. In a day.

For me that all sounds vaguely funny. Try living here and the humor stops like a car going 90 into a steel wall. How, precisely, do you buy that which you have to have to survive? I couldn't even imagine what it must take to walk into a car dealership.

Yet, with that, people are so remarkably wonderful here.

On a Friday night in Minsk, deep in the worst kind of jet lag (assuming there's a good kind) I'm at the cafe in the hotel lobby and noodling around about heading out in search of music (there's a pretty good music scene here, and the restaurants are great). But tomorrow is a full rehearsal day and its the beginning of the very hardest part of West Side -- the Somewhere Ballet. Somewhere never made it into the film of West Side. Its a feature of the musical and as such is really rarely seen and understood. And its a tricky thing because the score makes it easy to fall into cliché. Add to that the fact that your stepping in and around Jerry Robbins and you better do your job well.

So I've been through the score, both in recording and sheet music, about 50 times and sat up last night (not that there was a choice) working through storyboards and ideas and a sense of inquiry about what the music was asking and what the choreographers notes (thank you Library of Congress and the luck of living in DC) were saying.

This iteration of West Side is strangely familiar in terms of the challenges that came up almost 55 years ago -- how do you get the best out of dancers who aren't singers, singers who aren't actors, actors who aren't dancers -- and how do you do it within something called the "Somewhere Ballet." Its there and its possible, but its not something to take lightly.

My initial answer is to bring together the best man in the cast with the best woman on a day off for everyone else and set about making a dance I understand and believe in, and then go from there -- what is the art that you need to make as oppose to the art that is in front of you. Forget the limitations - find what for you is the truth and then work your way down the trail until you find what everyone you need can do, and be challenged successfully by.

And that's a key that's easy to overlook I think in a musical situation like this -- one where the work has never been done in the country, and where you're in the middle of the first American musical ever staged here. Be sure that you are cognizant of the experience for the artists -- that, at the end of the day they are rewarded, challenged, and filled with possibility. Don't expect them to be anyone else but who they are with what they have the ability to do in six months. Not today, but down the road. That's the trick. This is a new place, a new space and a new experience for almost everyone here, and so its a different, but remarkable, journey.

Yesterday we had class -- for all 50 people in the cast -- in a small studio off the deck of the main stage (rehearsal, mercifully, was on the stage itself) and it was a crazy, crazy thing to watch Jason navigate it all (and do so brilliantly). Then, in the evening, it was "America," which, in the Broadway production is only for the women (the movie version with the boys is so infectious its hard to get it out of your head). Jason is really the lead voice in that dance, and he embraced the the images below will tell you.

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