Walking into the darkened Ziegfeld Theater, the music of Leonard Bernstein’s “Cool” from West Side Story sings through the air. Onstage, The Jets writhe in anger and pulse with hurt. When the number closes, the performers hold their final pose and then collapse in unstaged exhaustion. A five-foot nine-inch, feminine silhouette rises from the front seats and calls out encouragement, thanks the actors for a long Saturday of rehearsals, corrects mistakes, clarifies counting but mostly she calls out for more. More hurt, more anger, more pain, and more emotion. The performers are tired, but they manage to smile and nod affirmatively that they are willing to give more for their choreographer, Talese Hunt.
Miss Hunt began talking about dancing and smiles and tells that she began when she was three. She’s grown a bit since then. In fact, she laughs about being 5’9”and a dancer, saying “People always think it’s good to be tall as a dancer, but, in my opinion, now having lived the life of a tall dancer, I feel there’s fewer jobs for the taller dancers.” Hunt’s five-foot-nine-inch frame often was a stumbling block because of casting issues and her needing to be partnered with male dancers who were taller than her. This limited her choices to some degree but had people telling her to look east to New York City and the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, who are famous for their height requirements of five-foot six-inches to five-foot-10-and-a-half-inches.
“I’m tall!” Hunt says almost apologetically but with a hint of defiance, but that height has led her to reach higher and for more. One might consider coming from the Rockettes to Ogden might be a step down, but Hunt doesn’t think so. “The reason that I loved working at the Ziegfeld as compared to a show like the Rockettes is that this is a living, breathing production.” After five seasons with the Rockettes, Hunt decided to stay in the Wasatch Front and continue dancing closer to home, believing that Utah has a history of supporting the arts.
The Rockettes, in their three month contracts, are about having to get things done. They only have so much money, so they have to save it. The show is set, and as a dancer, you don’t have as much creative freedom. Here, in community theater, Hunt feels more free to create, and getting to do it with friends and neighbors, seeing them shine in ways that maybe they don’t get to do in their day jobs, is very fulfilling. Her first show at the Ziegfeld Theater, on 40th and Washington in Ogden, was as Ulla in the 2014 cast of “The Producers” where she first met Morgan Parry, the director of West Side Story. The friendship formed there brought Talese back to Ogden this year to choreograph West Side Story.
West Side Story, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, has, from the beginning, told its story not only through dialogue and singing but through dance, as well. In its opening year on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story was nominated for six Tony Awards, including best musical. Losing to Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man for Best Musical, Director/Choreographer, Jerome Robbins won a Tony for choreography. This history of excellence in choreography as well as the musical score by Bernstein can be a daunting task from a choreographer’s perspective.
When brought on by Morgan Parry, Miss Hunt says Parry told her that she wanted to take the dance to new heights. The fight scenes needed to feel raw and real and fit to the music. Jerome Robbin’s original choreography is so iconic that leaving it behind would be noticed by an audience. The two ladies, Parry and Hunt, also wanted to bring more levels into the dance and make use of a fire escape built into the set, a scaffolding that moves, a water tower and a moveable metal staircase.
Talese feels lucky that she was able to get so many acrobatic dancers for the cast, especially in the men. Daniel Pack, who plays the Jet gang member, A-rab, is a student in Weber State’s music department. Pack says that sometimes he feels a bit intimidated by some of the more experienced dancers and acrobats in the cast, but, working with Hunt, he’s been pushed to do many things he never thought he would. “She [Hunt] doesn’t have unrealistic expectations of us; she just has high expectations of us.” Those high expectations led his character to be dangled upside-down by his legs from a scaffolding by rival gang members, the Sharks, in the opening scene of the musical.
You can see the results of Talese Hunt and Morgan Parry’s collaboration, in West Side Story at the Ziegfeld Theater, 3934 S Washington Bvld, Ogden. Opening night was Friday, June 5 at 7:30 p.m. Regular performances are 7:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday, with two 2:00 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, June 20 and 27. More information can be found at zigarts.com