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'West Side Story' Gets Riveting Encore

New York City Ballet revives lively dances from the classic musical about two rival gangs

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Nikolaj Hbbe is a dancer, not a magician, but that hasn't stopped him from transporting thousands of ticket-holders back in time with a snap of his fingers.

Hubbe's gesture opened the New York City Ballet's recent exhibition of dances from "West Side Story." It was meant to signal the volatile relationship between two rival gangs - the fabled Sharks and Jets.

But like one of Proust's madeleines, it also triggered countless remembrances of things past. Indeed, the enthusiasm that greeted the opening SNAP! seemed to confirm that the entire audience had either gone to the 1957 Broadway musical or seen the subsequent Hollywood film.

The latest version of this American classic, a 35-minute abridgment called "West Side Story Suite," highlights some of the livelier dance ensembles. Featuring six of the original ballets, plus a new solo set to "Something's Coming," it meets even the highest expectations.

Conceived and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, "West Side Story" is both a tragedy inspired by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and a cautionary tale about cultural intolerance. It's also hilarious.

Yet what sets "West Side Story" apart is neither its classical structure nor its wit, but rather its deft embrace of the vernacular. Bernstein's masterly score, for example, resounds with the vibrancy of the city streets.

Stephen Sondheim injected as much urban slang into his lyrics as a musical comedy can withstand. And Robbins's choreography, tuned to the rhythms of jazz and Latin dance, wants to burst like a Manhattan fire hydrant on a summer day.

'Tonight' cut from the show

Robbins, whose relationship with City Ballet dates back nearly half a century, has stripped these dances of the surrounding dialogue for the company's new "Suite." Not even "Maria" and "Tonight" - show-stopping arias, but short on substantive choreography - make his cut.

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