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SWING MAN : Irvine's Chris Sircello Trades Ballet Slippers for Tony Winners in 'Jerome Robbins' Broadway'

July 25, 1991|ZAN DUBIN | Zan Dubin is a Times staff writer who writes about the arts for The Times Orange County Edition.

Chris Sircello inhabited a world where sorcerers turn spellbound women into large white birds and velvet-vested princes get bows and arrows for their birthdays. In other words, as a classical ballet dancer, the Irvine native danced "Swan Lake" a lot--and didn't like it much.

He recently traded in the 19th Century, however, for something he finds a lot more stimulating, realistic and "a lot of fun."

"Jerome Robbins' Broadway," at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through Aug. 4, "opened up a new world of theater for me," said Sircello, 24, who joined the production last October when it played Los Angeles. (The production here is essentially the same one that ran in Los Angeles except for some cast changes, a spokeswoman with the musical said.)

The show, which won six Tony awards in 1989, is a compilation of dances and scenes from nine musicals, plus one number not done on Broadway, that Robbins choreographed, directed or conceived between 1944 and 1964.

To music and lyrics by other such Broadway giants as Leonard Bernstein, Sammy Cahn, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim, dancers do the mambo, the Charlston, the Russian bottle dance and striptease. They play Keystone Kops, tipsy sailors, bootleggers and bathing beauties.

A "maelstrom of energy and high skill," as Dance Magazine called it, the production has 50 performers who take on as many as 10 roles each, furiously changing in and out of a total of 500 costumes, 350 pairs of shoes and 275 wigs.

As a "swing," stepping in for sick or injured ensemble dancers, Sircello appears in up to seven numbers. They are "On the Town," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "The King and I," "High Button Shoes," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Billion Dollar Baby" and, his favorite, a suite of dances from "West Side Story," where he struts and prowls through New York City streets as a finger-snapping Jet or a surly Shark.

All of the choreography is older than he is, but Sircello said he finds it more vital than anything he danced in "old and stale" classical story ballets. Works by Robbins, a master at creating character through movement, require a sort of acting ability he'd never exercised, he said.

"Ballet acting is affected" and uses unrealistic, exaggerated pantomime, said Sircello. Conversely "real acting," as he calls what he attempts now, "is not imitation, but real life," he said during a recent telephone interview from Pittsburgh, where the company had stopped on its national tour. The troupe began the cross-county trek in Miami last May and has also visited Orlando, Houston, Phoenix and Louisiana.

Sircello has not met the 72-year-old Robbins, who directed and choreographed his own archival look-back. But he learned his roles largely from George Russell, assistant to the choreographer. Russell conveyed that movement for movement sake is anathema to Robbins, whose extensive repertory for the New York City Ballet has also earned him world renown.

"Everything is significant and symbolic," Sircello said, "the steps always say something. For instance, a sailing step--like sailing through the air--we do in 'West Side Story' is about feeling good and feeling your space. That's the whole thing about 'West Side Story,' space, territory, turf."

Russell helped with character development, advising Sharks and Jets to constantly recall the "bad neighborhoods" they grew up in, for instance. "George always reminds us of who (our characters are) and what we are doing there," Sircello said.

Dramatic interpretation isn't the only challenge Sircello has had to meet in a demanding production where he commonly substitutes for more than one dancer in a single performance. He can barely count all the ensemble parts--from seven dances plus a finale--he has to be ready to dance at a moment's notice.

"Well, there are 14 boys in "West Side Story," all in different places at different times, and there are, in "West Side Story" alone, how many numbers? Four numbers--no, more like five--and I've got to know every one of 14 guys' parts in every number."

Actually, it's not as mind-boggling as it may seem, he said. Many ensemble members dance the same or similar steps. Still, each one may cross the stage at a different time or in a different direction, and the "people and props you interact with are all different," he said.

Sircello, who also understudies three featured roles (he has often danced the role of Riff, the lead Jet in "West Side Story") and said he appears in nearly every performance, helps his memory along by consulting a big, thick binder kept backstage with illustrations of every dancers' position "at any given time."

"Before the show, we go to the book, refresh our memories about the spot we're taking over, and go on!"

"Jerome Robbins' Broadway," which won one of its Tonys for best musical, opened on Broadway in 1989 after 22 weeks of rehearsal and at a cost of $8.7 million.

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