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Trouble in Tahiti and West Side Story Symphonic Dances

Leonard Bernstein and Dane Hurst

Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre

The Lowry, Salford

November 11 & 13, 2021; 2hrs

Phoenix Dance Theatre Ensemble in Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances credit Richard H Smith
Phoenix Dance Theatre in Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances. All pics: Richard H Smith

Opera North’s double bill programme at The Lowry consists of a revival of Leonard Bernstein’s one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, previously staged by them in 2017, and in a new collaboration with Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre, a contemporary dance presentation of Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances.

The second of these is preceded by a 10-minute dance work to a spoken word performance by Khadijah Ibrahim (with a score by an unidentified composer) called Halfway and Beyond, which we’re told is a “bridge” between the two.

I guess it also helps to bring the total running time to around two hours and avoid any complaints about money’s worth.

Both dance works are choreographed by Dane Hurst, newly installed artistic director of Phoenix. It’s a brave man who offers a fresh dance interpretation of the music of West Side Story so unforgettably created by Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein (though there have been revisionist stagings of the musical itself before now) but his take on the orchestral concert piece is totally convincing and his style, on this showing, is clear, intense, highly watchable and (as contemporary dance language goes) very graceful.

There’s a storyline: it’s about South Africa (where Hurst comes from) in the 1950s and sixties and the potential for a melting-pot society that was destroyed by apartheid. We see whites and blacks (in this case it matters very much that you notice the identity of the dancers’ ethnicities) beginning to trust each other but torn asunder by authority. It ends with a protest and a death.

You can see the parallels with West Side Story itself: a police whistle stops the youngsters in their tracks, just as in the musical; the tune of There’s a Place for Us is the basis for some lyrical duos; the Cool fugue and Rumble music become the vehicle for increasing tension and conflict over the Pass Laws – and behind it all there’s the racial divide, which love can overcome but power wants to control and enforce.

The dancing is inventive, often exuberant, and the final unanswered question about the future is – as also in the musical and the concert piece’s endings – poignant and probing.

Halfway and Beyond, as a curtain-raiser to that, seems a little superfluous, but its text attempts to take us from the 1950s frustrated domesticity of Trouble in Tahiti to the re-interpretation of the West Side Story score. Dancers are divided by ethnicity, but there’s “a maze of comings and goings” to begin with, and the couples who cross the divide are joined in a plea that “If only love were enough to take us halfway and beyond…”

To the musically-minded, a fascinating aspect of Trouble in Tahiti (written in 1951-2) is that we hear some of the signature features of Bernstein’s style to come (West Side Story opened in 1957). The stifled relationship of the young couple living in a supposed world of suburban perfection fed by advertising and radio jingles is illuminated by their longing for something purer and higher: “There is a garden…” sings wife Dinah (to an earworm tune very much like There’s a Place for Us) and Is There a Day has an insistent drumming, pedal note and an unresolved final chord not unlike the end of the musical, while the Latin dance rhythms show the facility its composer had to jump from one idiom to another.

In this revival of Matthew Eberhardt’s production, Quirijn de Lang is the business executive husband Sam, and Sandra Piques Eddy, with her remarkable vocal range, makes a very impressive Dinah. Laura Kelly-McInroy, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield are smoothly wonderful as the radio jingle trio, and Martin Pickard conducts everything with a sure hand.

Repeated at The Lowry on Saturday November 13 and at Nottingham Theatre Royal on November 18 and 20.


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