Ballet Meets Broadway as West Side Story Suite Returns

What is it like for a dancer to get up on stage…and sing?! Terrifying. Thrilling. Maybe a little bit of both.

“After all the fear,” says dancer Ellen Grocki, “it’s actually liberating on stage. Then it’s a totally new experience and you want to sing all the time. It’s a whole other way to express yourself.”

With the return of West Side Story Suite in Miami City Ballet’s third program of the 2022/23 season, Ellen and three of her fellow MCB dancers – Nathalia Arja, Andrei Chagas, and Bradley Dunlap – will get to revisit this musical theater extravaganza that has them dancing, singing, and acting.

For Bradley, getting another chance to play Riff, a character he describes as “pretty complex,” is what he is looking forward to. “It’s one of the few roles I walked away from wishing I had another chance.”

He’s had time to rethink his approach to Riff, who he originally portrayed as aggressive, then playful. “I imagine he’s quite an insecure individual who is working to hide that. In that sense, I would love to explore him a little more and give him more depth. And not try so hard to get that message across, to relax a little more into the character.”

Nathalia and Ellen have previously performed the role of Anita and each of them feels a connection to the character in different ways.

“Being Latina, it’s one of the roles that I can relate to most,” says Nathalia, who is Brazilian. “As soon as I was learning the steps, I thought, ‘Oh, this is familiar,’ not because I’ve done it, but because it’s in my culture. It’s the kind of moves that I grew up dancing. So I instantly found that connection with Anita.”

And when Ellen puts on the Anita wig and iconic purple dress, “I can throw the sass and the attitude,” she says. “That really helps put me into character. I may not look like her on the outside, but I can feel her when I put on the costume.”

Getting into character is one thing, but the preparation for the singing is just as much a mental process as it is technical training.

The dancers with singing parts get professional coaching. Ellen also describes practicing at home a lot – singing in the closet, shower, or car. Then she has to do it in a studio rehearsal where it may not sound the same and she’s dancing at the same time.

Despite her nerves and the challenges, she slowly built her confidence and got to the sweet spot to “break through that barrier. When you feel like you know what you’re doing, you can really go for it and push it.”

For any ballet dancer who has ever dreamed of performing on Broadway, West Side Story Suite is their moment to feel what that’s like.

That dream became a reality for Andrei, and he now knows that feeling well. He left MCB in 2017 to appear in the revival of Carousel on Broadway. Not only that, he played a Shark in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated remake of the classic West Side Story film.

The last time he performed in MCB’s production was for the company premiere in 2014. He remembers that Chita Rivera, the original Broadway Anita, was invited to MCB’s Open Barre series to speak about her career and share her experience. After watching him in a rehearsal, she turned to her friend, Richard Amaro, and said “Who’s that guy in the pink shirt? He’s a good actor; he should be on Broadway.”

A few years later, Andrei was stepping on to the famous Imperial Theater stage in New York City to make his Broadway debut. He went on to get nominated for a Chita Rivera Award, which recognizes dance excellence on Broadway.

Now that he’s back at MCB, it’s a full-circle moment.

“I realize how fortunate I am, and it’s been an amazing career and I’m so thankful and glad. Coming back to be a part of this production, I’m just very excited and looking forward to share with my peers all that this career has brought to me. I hope we have time to play, meaning literally play! It should be fun. It’s fun to create your own story yet tell the same story all together.”

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Photo credit: MCB dancers in West Side Story Suite. Photo © Gary James.