San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Lorena Feijoo talks with actress Rita Moreno, winner of the Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy, about portraying the role of Anita in West Side Story, as well as the legacy of Jerome Robbins.
BACKSTAGE: So Rita, what does West Side Story mean to you and Lorena, what does it mean to sing and dance live, since you're used to dancing?
RITA: First I would love to hear Lorena's answer because it's such an unusual thing. You see, I never saw it [West Side Story Suite]. I was asked to come and see it. I was invited by Jerry Robbins and I never got to see it because I was doing a film, So I've never seen the company, any company do this with the songs.
LORENA: It was a challenge for all of us, first of all to break through and sing in front of your colleagues. ‘Cause you're used to just dance and that's what you do and I'm not at all shy about that. The first day, you know, we did some auditions and they picked the people that thought had potential, though we didn't really take lessons before that. Then they gave us a couple of lessons but just minimum stuff. And then we get to the studio and you have to sing in front of everybody and I was like oh, my God. I just prayed. Three days after we started I started with a cold so it was like even a bigger effort for me. But it was a lot of fun, I mean, granted, it's a ballet that has to do with my background, you know, Latin, and when I first started I thought, oh my God, do I really get paid to come and rehearse this? It's like going to a salsa club.
RITA: How different was it for you to now also express with your voice? Do you feel that it enhanced what you were doing [with dance]? Do you feel that it was a bit of a strain? I'm just curious to know.
LORENA: Yeah, it was a bit of a stretch because the score, the part that we have to sing, it's a little high for my register. But I notice that the more relaxed you are and the more dance you incorporate, even when you're singing, the better I sound. If I would stay too straight or just think about the voice it would not come out as I wanted. You know, it's a completely different kind of stamina. So it was fun but it was a very new experience.
RITA: It's interesting that you would bring up the stamina part because it's what we did all the time, of course, so that's how it was and it never occurred to us that there would be any other way. But to sing and dance is really, it's a beast.
Also holding a note when you're out of breath is very, very difficult. And I learned a trick, which was to exhale just before I took the next line of song because I needed all of that.
And remember this too, that when you're singing “America” you don't have to be a great singer. We were not Barbara Streisands, any of us, and that's not what it's about anyway. It's about passion and spirit and emotion and feeling. What you have to be is the actress who dances.
LORENA: Yeah. Which is the part I love too, you know. It's just the interaction with the other girl and her being all sweet and dreamy about Puerto Rico and you're like “Why are you here then?”
RITA: Right. Oh, there's just so much spirit. Are you having fun?
LORENA: A lot of fun, a lot—I mean, it's so fun that it's scary. For the first time in my life I thought I should go to Broadway. I mean, I don't know if I'm going to be able to make it but I want to try. Seriously.
BACKSTAGE: What does West Side Story mean to you?
RITA: It really marked the beginning of a certain kind of celebrity that I had never imagined would happen to me. Indeed, before that I had done The King and I, which was a film that won many awards. It was a gorgeous, fabulous film. But it was West Side Story which got me many awards, among them the Oscar and the Golden Globe. So there was that. But I'll tell you what always stays with me was the joy and the thrill of working with Jerry Robbins. He was hard on me, because at the time I got the role—and I got it thanks to him—I hadn't danced since I was 16 and I was then in my twenties, my late twenties when I got the movie. But we had done The King and I together, the film. I was never a spectacular dancer, ever, in my wildest dreams. And I never became one either. But thanks to Jerry and to Howard Jeffries, his astonishing choreography assistant, they beat it out of me. Obviously there was something there or they couldn't have done that, but the joy of working with a genius like him is something that has stayed with me forever. And I think even now that if Jerry were to ask me tomorrow, if he were still around, I would do everything to be a part of it. It was a unique experience. I was very lucky. I'm one of the few people in the world who got to do the only two films he ever did, The King and I and West Side Story. And I got West Side Story in a way because we had worked together on The King and I and he felt that I would be right for the part. Originally he asked me to audition in New York for the part of Maria. I looked like a Maria then. But believe it or not, I got cold feet. I got too scared and I never went to audition. And then I saw the production. I went oh, ooohhh boy.
And then, you know, how lucky for me that I got to do the film. So it means a lot of things. It was a unique film in terms of musicals and there's never been a film like that. There have been spectacular films, spectacular films, but nothing quite like West Side Story.
BACKSTAGE: A question again for you and then Lorena, what kind of character is Anita and how do you convey her personality?
RITA: Anita is a survivor. She lives in the ghetto and has learned that the only way to survive is with humor and to express herself in the most passionate ways possible. She's very brave. I think of her as really rather noble. You know, I hearken back to the scene in the candy store where she tries to help Maria and Tony. It's supposed to be an almost physical assault on her. And I often wondered what happens to Anita after the story is over, and I think she picks herself up and dusts herself off, as the saying goes, and goes ahead with her life, more injured and wounded than she's been before that, but she goes on, she prevails. I love her very much. And I always feel that—and I hope this doesn't seem arrogant—I could've played her with my eyes closed at any time in my life because I was that girl. I wasn't a gang member but I understood what it was like to live with that kind of racial prejudice because I lived with it for a good part of my life in New York City. So it wasn't new to me. It wasn't anything that I had to go and research.
LORENA: I feel that way. You know, she was a conqueror, a fighter, you know, that nothing in life was going to stop her ever, and that there was that sense of irony when she sings to the rest of the girls. You know, that is very Latin too. We even make jokes about our own problems, at least in Cuba we do. People make jokes about it instead of crying or feeling sorry about themselves.
RITA: I think that sense of humor is what makes people strong, actually. It's a way of surviving.
LORENA: Uh-huh. We in Cuba do that all the time. In general I think for a Latin person it's easier to play this role because of the many attributes that, you know, just by being Latin is, they're in your DNA. And I feel fortunate 'cause otherwise I think I would have to really study the role.
RITA: It's absolutely so. That's why the voice is really the least important. It's not as though you're singing “Somewhere”, which is a more difficult song, or “Tonight”, which is a more difficult song. You're singing something that's about passion and humor and the irony of the way in which they are forced to live in this ghetto in New York City. It's all of those things and the voice is the very last thing that you have to worry about.
BACKSTAGE: In a larger picture, what does dance mean to both of you as dancers? What has it meant in your life? What does it mean to you now?
LORENA: It's always meant almost everything. You know, it's hard for me to get up days where I'm not dancing or rehearsing. I don't even know how to express it. It's hard to put in words. It's almost like your self-esteem and your happiness and everything is so linked to that and I feel that for me I knew it since I was a little girl,. My mom was a dancer so I was always involved in this life of theater and dressing rooms and costumes. Although when I wanted to start she said, “Don't do it; it comes with a lot of sacrifices,” every girl in the world wants to be a ballerina. For me it was like I want this; I know I am supposed to do this. For me dancing is like being naked almost, it's like expressing who you are. Music is just so much part also of my life or what I enjoy at all times. So those two things, you know, music and dance, for me are just a way of saying to the world who you are.
RITA: With respect to dance, it's something I started to do when I was a very, very tiny little girl and it's true what Lorena says, it's in your genes. ‘Cause I was doing it. I was dancing for grandpa when I was 3 and 4 years old in Puerto Rico. I used to dance to records. And when I came to this country my mom and I came here, “here” meaning New York really, by ship because we couldn't afford an airplane —we were really very, very poor—a friend of my mother's named Irene Lopez, was a Spanish dancer and she saw me jumping around and dancing and shaking my booty to some music that was on while they were talking and visiting. And Irene stopped talking and she started to look at me and she says, “You know, Rosita really ought to take some dance lessons. I think she's just meant to do that.” So she took me, with my mother's blessing she took me to a dance teacher, a Spanish dance teacher named Paco Cansino, who was one of the dancing Canseno family from Spain, and that was Rita Hayward's uncle. That was her real name, Margarita Cansino. And that's how I started. And it was just the most natural thing in the world.
I was a Spanish dancer and then I learned that in order to be better at what I was doing it would be a good idea to take other kinds of dance, so I did ballet and I did tap. And in fact to this day I do good heel work. And my time is just almost, it's not perfect but it's as close to perfect as you can get, but that comes from doing you know, that kind of dancing.
BACKSTAGE: What is the story of West Side Story in a nutshell? What is it to each of you?
RITA: Well it's really, it is what it is. It's based on Romeo and Juliet and the two warring factions and what makes it so brilliant, I think, is the notion that it could be applied, the universality of that scene could be applied to the Puerto Ricans and the American kids in this country.
It's always going to exist. But that they were able—and I say “they” 'cause, you know, there are so many theories about who really came up with the story. Apparently it was Montgomery Clift, the actor. Montgomery Clift was a friend of Jerome Robbins and the most well-known story and apparently it's the most authentic one, as far as I know. They were at a party and Clift at one point said to Jerry Robbins, “You know what would make a wonderful musical? Romeo and Juliet”. And that apparently was the germ of this astonishing, astonishing, unique musical.
LORENA: And at the end of the suite I always cry, I mean, just because of what the song, you know, the lyrics are saying, but also just the gestures. And how many tragedies and how many more wars are we going to have to have for people to understand at the end we're all human beings.
BACKSTAGE: You've touched on this a little bit but what does the piece, and in general Robbins' works, why are they so important? What does it mean to society, his body of work?
RITA: That one calls for a little thought. I think that Jerry brought something to the world at large as an audience that I don't think any other choreographer has brought, and that is a certain kind of humanity.
LORENA: I agree completely.
RITA: It's what makes his work stand out from other great choreographers, great, but they're very often cerebral works, they're technical, they're beautiful to look at but there's something of the gut in Jerry's work, in everything he ever did that had to do with the human being inside that dancer that represented the people in the audience, the person.
LORENA: Whenever I see the beginning of Glass Pieces I think this is New York, I mean, the streets of New York. People walking, you know, bumping into each other but almost like not acknowledging 'cause everybody's so busy.
RITA: And that's the other part of his work, too, which is that he used normal human movement, he incorporated it very often in his work.
LORENA: You know, like the endings of a lot of chunks of West Side Story, they just step together and bow. And that is so strong. I mean, I was sitting in rehearsals and thinking how can this simplicity be so powerful?
RITA: It's not difficult to follow, it's not abstracted movement. Jerry didn't do that. He did that, you know, sometimes here and there but that's not what his work was about. It was so grounded in humanity that it made him truly, truly unique in the world of dance I think.
LORENA: With him it's weird because you can always see his touch, his style, even if you don't know that it is a Robbins, you can say it looks like a Robbins ballet. But at the same time he was able to do Broadway, he was able to do other dances and incorporate character dances, you know. It was never the same and at the same time you could always see his stamp.
RITA: And it wasn't so much about wanting the boys to be masculine as wanting them to be strong, and that went for the girls as well. No little cute stuff.
Even in the little ballet, tiny, tiny section, where Maria first meets Tony in the gym and they're doing these movements and all that kind of stuff. There was none of that. As tender as it all was, when she says, “Are you sure, you know, are you sure” something about I'm the right person, he says, “There can only be one right person and that's you,” whatever that was, all the movements were delicate but they were strong.
LORENA: For me, if I'm going to play Lise in La Fille mal gardee, I really have to stretch myself, I really have to think about how would I look girlie because that's not who I am. So I identified with him because in all of the roles that I have done of his it's just, he allows for that maturity to come through.
RITA: Yeah. He demands it. And that's the one thing I didn't have, you see, when I went into the film, because as I said, I was a Spanish dancer. That's all. I had never, ever in my life done that kind of dance, ever, ever. I'd done tap and I did flamenco and the castanets, but I had never done that kind of dancing. So I was a complete novice. And obviously he must have seen something or I wouldn't have ended up getting the part, I promise you. He didn't do those kind of favors for anybody. But it had to do with that strong back always and strong arms. And yet there were still places when I see the film and I go oh, God. Ooh! You know, I have these funny flaccid little arms and it just, oh, it bothers me so much. But he was a marvel. And funny. What a great sense of humor!
BACKSTAGE: What is West Side Story Suite?
LORENA: From what I have understood, they're fragments or excerpts of the big Broadway musical, that when he did it for City Ballet he just caught the pieces that he thought were the most likely to reflect the dancing part and the singing part from the whole piece that he liked the most or that he would want to condense.
LORENA: I think it will rock the house.
RITA: Oh, I know it will.
LORENA: I love everything I've done. But this is just so special.
RITA: Will you be wearing heels?
LORENA: I will.
RITA: Oh, my dear. Oh, it's the whole thing.