'West Side’ Ballet Signals Broader Arts Focus

'West Side’ Ballet Signals Broader Arts Focus

Long-time dancers bring experience to Churchill production.

As a performer, Talia Gottlieb does a little bit of everything. She is an actress at Winston Churchill High School, and beginning this year has taken part in choir and musical theater as well.

But Gottlieb is a dancer first. She has studied ballet for 13 years. And she has never had an opportunity to put that talent to work at Churchill — until now.

Gottlieb, a junior, and sophomore Evan Howard, will perform a dream ballet during Churchill’s production of “West Side Story” on Nov. 11, 12, 17 and 18 at the school.

The ballet comes near the beginning of the second act, after lead Tony kills Maria’s brother Bernardo in the “Romeo and Juliet” story of rival gangs and forbidden love.

The “real” Tony and Maria remain onstage, along with other cast members, as Gottlieb and Howard enact an ethereal sequence projecting the couple’s suppressed love. The sequence was part of the original Broadway “West Side Story” but was not part of the 1961 film adaptation.

“This is when they come together and realize how terrible it is and how much they want to be together,” Gottlieb said. “I think it’s funny because we’re these ballerinas, and we’ve just come from this rough gang and then they see us change into this drastic character change. I think that’s a fun part for the audience too.”

Both Gottlieb and Howard bring more than 10 years of dance training to their ballet performances, and both perform the dance and separate onstage roles.

Director Jessica Speck said she didn’t plan the show with the ballet in mind, but that including it jibed with her ongoing effort to showcase the full range of Churchill students’ talents.

“I never pre-planned it going into it,” she said. “[But] after the casting I was like, ‘Of course.’ I think in that way it’s a lucky coincidence for us. … I think it’s a great way to feature another level of the talent of our kids.”

Speck asked the experienced dancers if they would be willing to take on the ballet. When they agreed, she brought in physical education teacher Connie Fink, who has a background in dance.

Working closely with the dancers, Fink choreographed the sequence, and the trio rehearsed it separately from the rest of the “West Side Story” cast, before bringing the elements together and smoothing out the transitions.

“She did most of it and then we put our input in,” Howard said. “It’s not extremely hard, but it fits this, and I think it will look really good. ... When you can’t communicate through just singing, you have to communicate through dancing.”

Both performers have trained as dancers since childhood. Gottlieb danced for four years in the United States and then for five with a London-based program while living in Kenya. She now practices with the Twinbrook School of Ballet and performs at Montgomery College each year.

Howard has danced with the Washington Ballet and performed in “The Nutcracker” last year.

“It’s hard to come across a male dancer or ballerina in high school. They’re so few and far between that when you have one as talented and trained as Evan then you really want to make use of it,” Gottlieb said.

Both dancers said they value the chance to bring their dance skills to the school, where opportunities to use them are rare. Both have cut back on dance practice elsewhere to focus on “West Side Story.”

The inclusion of the ballet signals a larger effort at Churchill to broaden its arts focus. “West Side Story” is its second musical of the fall — one more than usual — and comes in addition to a concert performance of “Les Miserables” that students prepared for in conjunction with English and history classes as a part the school’s arts-integrated curriculum.

“This year we’ve had another musical before this, 'Les Miz,' and this. We have a lot to do,” Howard said.

“There was the concert musical and then there’s ‘West Side’ with the ballet and the band on stage,” Gottlieb said. “I think they’re really all for it because there’s no reason not to when we have the talent to make use of it all.”