Broadway Dance Lab recently partnered with the Guthrie Theatre in preparation for their upcoming summer 2018 production of West Side Story. Choreographer Maija Garcia will create new choreography, aiming to put her own stamp on a work that has become synonymous with the legendary staging of Jerome Robbins. We spoke with Maija about her process and her method of approaching this iconic classic.
BDL: How did choreography first enter your life?
MG: Looking back, I started writing plays, and making dances when I was very young. We used an old camcorder to create television episodes and music videos. It was the way I had fun with my friends. My first love was gymnastics, then ballet and jazz. I started teaching dance classes at the age of 14, in exchange for my own training at Studio 1 in Ann Arbor MI. Teaching became my bread and butter for the next ten years. It’s how I paid for college, and began to develop my own style. Choreography grew out of making phrases for class. Over time, I became a choreographer, but it wasn’t on purpose. Actually, it was spiritual. Movement always called me to task, disciplined my body and mind, and fine tuned my purpose. I studied everything. Dances of the African and Latin diaspora, martial arts, contact improv, and physical theater. My vision was to be an international diplomat, or an ambassador of culture. I chose a special major in sustainability while dancing professionally through college. By the time I was 24, I finally gave in to the muse, moved to New York City from San Francisco and decided to go for it. I toured with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for five years, produced my own work on weeks off, and had the opportunity to choreograph a Broadway show with Bill T. Jones about afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. The more I think about it, I wouldn’t be where I am today without my students. They sculpted me like clay, and forced me to express my beliefs through my technique and my visions through choreography. Teaching gave me a playground in which to build obstacle courses to climb, and puzzles to put together. That’s what choreography is: a combination of passion, play and problem solving. We don’t always know how it will turn out, but we bring all that we are to the work, and let spirit move through the channel.
BDL: What three words would you use to describe your choreographic style?
MG: Rhythmic. Poetic. Effusive (Poured out when molten and later solidified.)
BDL: What is your process like? Do you generally do a lot of pre-production work or do you prefer to work in the moment?
MG: My creative process is highly collaborative. Before any production I study the script, and engage in copious amounts of research. I read, listen, and draw the world of the play, meditate on the story and search for the symbols or shadow language that might be conveyed through movement. I like to imagine the choreographic canvas as the space between all the words on the page. I believe our work as choreographers is to enliven the universe of feelings, thoughts, and expressions that motivate the action. So I come in to the studio with an idea and a phrase. I lead dancers and/or actors through a warm up that conjures up certain sensibilities, or opens the body in a specific way. I get people to interact, connect, and awaken every cell in their body. I like to pull movement from dancers, and to string their movement together to form a sequence. Once we get going, something will bubble up and I’ll start generating material like lightning bolts and hope somebody captures the genius of the moment! Then, music is king. Music is the ultimate dance partner – guiding every choice, inspiring rhythmic patterns and providing a structure to work within or push against. I like to play with time and space, to stretch both, and experiment with the edges. My work is challenging. It’s full and complex, not neat and clean. I expect dancers to speak volumes; to be real. I summon the whole human being to come with their ancestors and angels, their fears, dreams and flaws, to enliven the visceral experience. I believe when we infuse the imagined with the real, our stories gain the escape velocity to take flight.
BDL: Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the original production of West Side Story has become so iconic. Can you explain your approach to the project? How are you ensuring that your choreography feels fresh and new?
MG: The other day George Faison called me to say, “we must make dances for social change,” among other insightful remarks. When I told him I was working on original choreography for West Side Story, he reminded me that Robbins was a rebel. He strayed from the ballet of Balanchine and developed a movement style defined by the jazz era. His work was explosive, spontaneous, virtuosic, and yes – iconic. I have no intention to “out-do” Robbins. But I will carry the rebel torch with pride. Together with the illustrious Joe Haj (Artistic Director, The Guthrie Theater), we will create a grounded, diversified spin on an ever-relevant classic, bringing out the individual charms of each player as well as the collective danger of US vs.THEM.
BDL: How has partnering with BDL been beneficial to you?
MG: Invited to stage original choreography for West Side Story at The Guthrie Theater, I said “yes, of course!” What an extraordinary honor and opportunity, and (cue music) what a daunting, and overwhelming challenge. Charged with staging the work in five weeks – I needed a miracle. I needed time to generate material, to try out all of the bad ideas and make room for the right stuff to emerge. I needed to work with technicians who could eat my phrases for breakfast, and be ready for more by lunch. I needed the resources and support to be creative, for a few days at least – without the pressure of extreme deadlines; to sketch, to devise and revise at my own pace, in a supportive environment. I remembered having lunch at a New York diner with Josh Prince. I remembered how Josh described the Lab and thought- this is it! BDL could be my miracle! And it was. Last week I walked into a gorgeous studio full of vibrant artists and was able to sketch, draw and paint my way into the work. We created a foundation for the movement vocabulary that I will rely on over the next five weeks in Minneapolis. Each dancer who contributed to the process will be alive inside the work, informing and inspiring the right stuff, and high-kicking everything else to the curb. BDL took care of the dancers, the contracts, the space, logistics, and communication, so that I could focus solely on the work. They supported my choreographic process on so many levels. I am eternally grateful.