West Side Story, on both stage and screen, remains one of the most significant and influential creations in musical genre history thanks to its precise integration of story, music, performance, and dance. Choreography’s narrative centrality in the 1961 film adaptation (directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise) is the focus of my video essay, “America is (not) Cool.” The film’s formal use of dance merits greater attention, and my essay demonstrates this through a multiscreen analysis of two key dance sequences: “America” and “Cool.”
By juxtaposing “America” and “Cool” in their entirety, my work emphasizes the choreographic  and cinematographic parallels that strengthen the narrative ties between the two. The choice to analyze movement in motion shifts us from an intellectual study of the choreography within its cinematic context to an intuitive one, to use Henri Bergson’s categorical separation of scientific and perceptual knowledge . By avoiding immobility in my videographic analysis, I hope to provide the viewer with analytical and observational findings that cannot exist in written scholarship. As a result, minimizing my editorial changes to the numbers’ temporality was a priority. To accomplish this, I imposed several strict editing parameters in creating this work:
Playback of the two sequences is synchronized to the start of each musical number, beginning with the earliest suggestion of musical number content. For “America” this begins with the sounds of nondiegetic percussion music, for “Cool” this begins with Ice’s interjection of “they’ll laugh!” which, with the illumination of the car headlights, silences the group. The initial appearance and final disappearance of each number on the image track indicates the beginning and end of the musical numbers.
Both numbers play in their entirety with no modifications to the timing or order of shots or soundtracks, even if at times both “screens” display the visual content from one number or the sound from one number is absent.
As the opening epigraph to my video essay indicates, finding a medium-specific aesthetic was a central concern to Robbins in adapting his work to the screen. To allow the viewer to observe the numbers’ editing patterns, and the resonances between them, all edits within the playback of the numbers are original to the film. When “Cool” takes the place of “America” or vice versa, it is the result of either a shot ending in one number or a new shot beginning in the other.
To draw attention to my analytical findings that result from this juxtaposition, my edits therefore focus on sound mixing, when and where to display the visuals of each number, and the position of the screens relative to one another.
The complex rhythmic resonances of each number’s choreography become apparent when the dancing from one plays with the music and lyrics of the other. However, this juxtaposition demonstrates that the Sharks—Anita and her fellow female Sharks, especially—can more effectively “adapt” to the rhythms of both, whereas the Jets struggle more to integrate with the Sharks’. Moreover, Ice’s lyrics in the beginning—“easy does it,” “stay loose,” “play it cool”—emphasize that the Jets need to adopt qualities of lightness and free flow if they are to avoid raising suspicion after the events of the rumble, qualities that the Sharks already possess and demonstrate in their choreography as Ice sings those phrases.
The choice to arrange the images horizontally, rather than presenting them one on top of the other, emphasizes the attention Wise and Robbins gave to off-screen space in their staging of the choreography . In both numbers, framings range from long shots to show the ensemble to close-ups of lead characters (Anita in “America” and Ice in “Cool,” especially). Even in more distant framings, the choreography often exceeds the space of the frame to create expansive lines of lateral movement that extend off-screen. When the numbers are placed side by side, this creates a hybrid space in which the Jets and Sharks dance both with and against each other. For example, at 2:43 Anita moves frame right away from Bernardo in the left screen, towards the Jets, only to appear soon after in the right screen moving frame left, having circled around the Jets in the multiscreen space.
Closer framings of characters use the eyeline matches of the original numbers to suggest additional interactions between the two groups. Some are more playful—Ice’s lyrics in his close-up at 2:07 could function as mischievous advice to Bernardo given his flirtatious conflict with Anita at that moment—while others parallel the violence of the narrative, as when A-Rab “shoots” the Sharks at 2:56. The horizontal multiscreen layout creates a unified space, shared at times harmoniously and at times reluctantly, to draw attention to the parallels of staging, editing, and choreography.
In juxtaposing these two numbers, my work creates a hybridized musical number from the contents of “America” and “Cool” that changes the meaning of the original sequences to ultimately intensify the narrative, rhythmic, spatial, and at times sublime, parallels between the Jets’ and the Sharks’ performances. The result emphasizes the tragic tone of West Side Story’s narrative in our observation that there is more unifying these teenagers than there is diving them. The direct interaction of the two numbers suggests what the groups’ relationship could have been—teasing yet harmonious, given their numerous similarities—as opposed to what it is—confrontational and violent, given their mutual bias towards one another and their incompatible differences. The juxtapositions created in my editing choices demonstrate the aesthetic depth of Robbin’s choreography and dance’s crucial role in the film’s narrative.
1. My analysis is supported by the methodological rigor of Laban Movement Analysis, a system that provides a comprehensive vocabulary to describe the expressivity of human movement.
2. Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Mabelle L. Andison. Mineola: Dover, 2007.
3. Robbins left the film production of West Side Story before all musical numbers were filmed, but shooting schedules confirm that he was still on set when both “America” and “Cool” were in production. Wise, Robert. Memo to Al Wood. July 27, 1960. Jerome Robbins Papers, New York Public Library.
Jenny Oyallon-Koloski is an Assistant Professor in Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Certified Movement Analyst (CMA) through the Laban/Bartenieff Institute for Movement Studies. She studies movement on screen, the musical genre, and the films of Jacques Demy. Her work has appeared in Studies in French Cinema and PostScript.