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BWW Interview: Choreographer Julio Monge of WEST SIDE STORY in Tokyo, Japan


Jerome Robbins is well known for his unique style of choreography. Thousands of dancers all over the world credit him in their training, and admire his work, even years after his time. Many have tried to follow in his footsteps, but only one man has arguably been the most successful reincarnation of his tutor. Julio Monge is a jack-of-all trades on stage and is credited as being Jerome Robbins' protege since he first studied with him at a young age. Jerome was the choreographer for many Broadway musicals, including West Side Story, written by Arthur Laurents in the 1950's. Today, Julio has the incredible authority to re-stage all the original choreographies.

Julio has come to Japan with the newest West Side Story stage production, which opened at IHI StageAround Tokyo theater in August 2019. What's special about this production is that the audience surprisingly moves around the stage on a 360 degree platform. The man who invented this new technology, Robin De Levita, explained all about it, and you can read my interview with him HERE.

The show is being directed by Arthur Laurent's favorite person, David Saint, who is simultaneously in the midst of working on Stephen Spielberg's up-and-coming movie version of West Side Story. You can also read my interview with David HERE.

Intrigued and excited to work in a venue that would allow enough flexibility for performers to showcase West Side Story the way Arthur and Jerome Robbins had always dreamed about, David and Julio teamed up with TBS and a full cast and crew directly from Broadway to make it all happen.

To hear from the first American cast to ever play on this new 360 stage, read their interviews HERE.

Julio is a very passionate, and soft-spoken, kind man. It was a real treat getting to pick his brain about his life and hear what this all really means to him, and the world.

Larisa: They say that you are the protege of Jerome Robbins. is there something that, while you were growing up with him, he's given to you, and you've passed on to others?

JULIO: Yes! His approach to the theater, and to the work. His seriousness, his commitment, his depth, his curiosity, his passion. And of course his talent is enormous, and his inventiveness. We're still celebrating work that he came up with 70 years ago. Really almost 80 years, since he's been around since the 40s! But he taught me that our work requires work. And that was a great lesson. He cared. And he cared about humanity. All his stories are about relationships. He cared about human relations. And why people do things. So that was a big lesson.

Larisa: What do you think would be a good introduction, song or scene, for a Japanese person who has never seen or heard the music?

JULIO: Well, I think if you look at the dance at the gym, he's pushing the boundaries of theater. And he's creating almost a cinematic experience. It's the moment where "Romeo and Juliet" meet. And it's so effective, because his background is ballet, the structure of it is very much following those traditions, but he makes it work for the musical theater. It doesn't stay in ballet, but it does have the preoccupations of ballet, which is: you have to have a structure. Because ballet comes up in classical structure. So every movement in a classical piece has a purpose and a place and he was very aware of those pieces being in the right place at the right time.

So he created this dance at the gym, it's like a ballet. You can present it on its own. Even the prologue, the first 5-7 minutes of the show, there are almost no words spoken, it's all movement. But you see, it sets up the whole premise of the evening; the relationship to the space and who is who. And you get that without any words in the first 5 minutes through his movements. That's another great movement to watch.

Because that's hard to do, to come up with something eloquently, that speaks so clearly. And he worked really hard to come up with things like that. He labored. And he's a great distiller of extra fluff. You don't need fluff. And, as a performer, he distilled us of any bad habits, or anything we didn't need. All we needed to do was tell the truth in that moment. So he was an expert in bringing everything to its essence.

Larisa: You've done this show so many times. Do you make it a little different depending on the audience or the people who are doing it?

JULIO: It's always different, because you will see this space is different. I was in Australia where we were outdoors and it was different. But the cast is different, and the people who populate the show is different, so you have to create a new dynamic for them.

Larisa: Do you have to change it, based on a Japanese audience who doesn't speak English, for example?

JULIO: You don't change it much in the language. Because the show is very kinetic. It's very much a physical show. I believe it's one of the shortest books of any musical. He didn't need to say that much. Every scene is very compact. Everything else is told through his ideas in movement. And so there's a universality to it, and that's why people in Australia or in Japan, all over the world, they identify with the piece. And I think it's because of two things: Leonard Bernstein's magnificent score, and Jerome Robbins' magnificent concepts and movements. Those two things are the life. And you don't need to speak the language to connect to those things.

Larisa: Have you worked with David Saint, the director, before?

JULIO: No, first time!

Larisa: How did you guys know that you would mesh?

JULIO: Well, you never know that until you start working with someone. But he's very rooted in theater. Jerome Robbins was rooted in theater. Arthur Laurence was rooted in theater. And Bernstein loved the theater. And I'm a theater actor, performer, director and choreographer, and we have that in common. That understanding, and respect, and sense of history.

Larisa: Have you been working with Japanese directors here, to help the Japanese cast who's taking over?

JULIO: I came in May, and I did a workshop for a couple of days with most of the Japanese cast. So we had a head start with that. We had some associates with us, but we're gonna come back in October to pass on some information and set it up for them. At least for the 1st season we'll be here.

The Japanese cast will take over starting November 6th, 2019 and run in three seasons through January 13th, 2020! You can check the schedule and tickets HERE.

Larisa: Have you been to Japan before?

JULIO: With Jerome Robbins! We came here 30 years ago.

Larisa: How have you seen Japan change?

JULIO: Oh it's so fascinating! It's an amazing country. I wish the US had a lot more qualities form this culture. It's been an honor, and is admirable and beautiful....starting with the food! I love food countries! And this is a food country. But also their sense of care and respect. Even when you hand over money, they receive it with care; they don't throw it. The way they relate to one another, it just pierces the heart.

In America we closed our hearts, because we are too busy trying to be number one. And when you do that, you lose a lot as the price. Japan is still one of the first-world countries in the world, but they do it without sacrificing a lot of the essentials. We had a shinto ceremony yesterday, and it was amazing. We never even think about blessing anything. You do your own blessing in your house, which I like, it's ok, there is a freedom to that. But when you make it an essential part of things, I appreciate that. Because it puts everybody on the same page: That
things should be protected and they need to be blessed. I believe in that.

Larisa: Going back to the technology, what's your opinion on using technology in theater? Our resources have advanced so much, but there are some people who feel that theater should be raw, and shouldn't be overly accessorized, like using big projections; it should just be the way it used to be. But we can use advanced technology to make things beautiful and easier to control. So what's your opinion?

JULIO: Technology in the theater has been used since the Greeks! They had technology, they would fill a stage with water and have ships in it. In the middle ages, they had incredible mechanisms of people flying and magic. So technology and theater have always been together.

What's interesting about the technology in this [IHI StageAround Tokyo, 360
° Stage] venue, is that everybody has always been very busy trying to make technology happen on stage, but nobody thought of making the audience be part of that mechanism. And the fact that we can move the audience here and there, that's a very simple theatrical idea. See, the best technology in theater, is the simplest one. That creates the illusion in the simplest way. Same with choreography, the best choreography is the simplest. But it creates the depth and what you need in the story.

So what's fascinating in this venue is the simplicity that the audience moves. But nobody thought of that! And it's perfect! You'll see! The stage adds another emotional layer. Because you are active, as an audience. I mean, there's a type of theater where you get up and move to another stage, but nobody ever thought of just staying in your seats! That's the great idea!

Larisa: What sort of message or feeling do you hope that the audience who comes to see this production receives?

JULIO: That they can remember that nothing replaces the human spirit. The connection of an audience and a live performance. We have technology, we have our our iphones and games, and those are wonderful, but nothing replaces the flesh. The person putting their sweat and heart right in front of you. So that then you can complete the sentence as an audience. It's a reminder of our depth and sophistication. It's not outside of us. It's not in an object, it's not in a computer, it's us, doing things right there, in the moment. I don't think anything replaces that. And this show is one of the most theatrical experiences they will ever have because all the elements are blended in a way that is way more successful than things you will ever see.

Larisa: So how do you feel about the big DVD debate, whether DVDs of broadway shows should be sold to the people who can't go to the theater?

JULIO: I think it's all good. Do it. Do everything. I don't believe in restrictions about anything. I think that, if that helps, then that's it. But I think there are always people who are going to go somewhere to see somebody sing. No DVD is going to replace that. So I don't think we should be afraid of that. I don't think it competes. We just have to be creative. People are attracted to creativity.

WEST SIDE STORY is presented by TBS
and is playing at IHI StageAround Tokyo
in Tokyo, Japan through January 2020

Tickets can be purchased from the official website:

To read this article in Japanese, please CLICK HERE.

*All images used in this article are official promotional images provided by West Side Story, TBS, and John Gore.

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