Chakiris, a cut above the rest 1

Dance · Film · Theater

The camera catches a gang of gypsies rehearsing, in 1958, at New York’s Winter Garden theater before shipping overseas to perform in West Side Story’s second cast in London. Front and center is “West Side”s choreographer Jerome Robbins, running the “Cool” number with its inimitable finger snaps. Foremost in this group, a cut above the rest, is dancer George Chakiris, to the left of Robbins; Chakiris played “Riff” on the London stage for ten months before being cast as Bernardo for the screen version.

[Tony Mordente, far left, played A-rab on stage, Action in the film. Right of Robbins are Eddie Verso, Gary Cockerel, Sylvia Tysick, and David Bean.]

Chakiris’s screen-sizzling turn as Bernardo garnered an Academy Award and placed him in a rare category; he’s just about the only actor to win an Oscar for an all-dancing role beyond James Cagney, for YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942).

photo courtesy New York Public Library, Friedman-Abeles photograph collection
dancer i.d.s courtesy george chakiris

One comment on “Chakiris, a cut above the rest

  1. Mark A. Martin Sep 3,2013 10:36 am

    A great behind-the-scenes shot of the “West Side Story” stage rehearsals! You can see the deep degree of George’s concentration as he immersed himself into the movement of the dance while building his well-studied interpretation of the character of Riff. George’s innate ability to immerse himself into character also served him well when he portrayed the opposite antagonist Bernardo in the screen version of the play. Note to Debra’s readers: In the original stage version of “West Side Story,” the “Cool” Number preceded the “Rumble” scene; hence Riff’s participation in the number as the leader of the Jets.

    I personally feel that up and coming dancers should make it a point to study George Chakiris’ film and television work. From his earliest ensemble work as a chorus dancer and beyond, he dances with grace and with ease even in the most intricate of movements while readily reflecting and sharing his sheer inner joy of the dance with his fellow performers. George often credits his choreographers and his fellow dancers for his outstanding performances, obviously considering himself as being just one of the “gang.” George’s kind and thoughtful humility, along with his tremendous talent, most certainly proves him to be one cut above the rest.

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