Making the Impossible Possible – The Big Apple Circus Is Back!!!




New York, NY — For the first time in the Wallenda family’s 200 year history, world-renowned aerialist, high wire artist and Guinness World Record holder, Nik Wallenda will helm the production of The Big Apple Circus , a circus he has chosen to revive.

Aptly titled “Making The Impossible, Possible!” Wallenda has partnered with a team of live entertainment super producers from the circus world, live music and Broadway – Phillip Wm. McKinley , Michael Cohl and Arny Granat – to make Big Apple Circus even better, and more exciting by adding a modern flair to this beloved classic.

Revered for its intimate and artistic style, the producers are passionate about revitalizing the circus for modern-day audiences, with unique and astounding human feats from performers with incredible real-life stories.

A New York Times Critic’s Pick every year since its reconstitution in 2017, Big Apple Circus continues a long-standing tradition of inclusivity, highlighting the finest talent from around the globe for an equally diverse audience

The Big Apple Circus will return to Lincoln Center on Nov. 11

Tickets go on sale Sunday September 26th at noon at

Wallenda, a world-renowned aerialist who has been featured in five nationally televised TV specials is the first and only person in the world to walk a wire directly over Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and an active volcano.

Seen by over 250,000 people in Times Square, Nik, will be joined by his family of thrilling high wire artists, and an all-new award winning cast from Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Germany, Russia, and the United States, some of whom have previously been featured on America’s Got Talent, YouTube and The X-Factor.

For decades, The Big Apple Circus captured the hearts of New Yorkers with death-defying feats that produce oohs, ahhs and gasps throughout the crowd, putting a contemporary twist on the beloved classic. The show was forced to close in 2017 due to financial challenges and after reopening had to shut down again due to the pandemic. However, the revival has been several months the making, with Wallenda, McKinley, Cohl and Granat bringing their extensive credentials to the table:

  • Director Philip Wm. McKinley has directed record-breaking productions from Broadway to Salzburg to Tokyo. Known for his direction of spectacle, his work includes the blockbuster Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, the Tony nominated The Boy from Oz and the water spectacular Le Reve at the Wynn Hotel Las Vegas.
  • Emmy and Tony Award winner Michael Cohl is CEO of S2BN Entertainment and the former Chairman of Live Nation. Over his career he has produced and promoted tours for some of the biggest musical and theatrical acts in the world including Moscow Circus Bolshoi, Spiderman turn off the Dark, Bat Out of Hell, the Musical, Rock of Ages, Yo Gabba Gabba, Barbra Streisand, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and U2.
  • Arny Granat is CEO of Grand Slam Productions and co-founded Jam Productions, which became one of the largest independent concert promoters in North America. He has won nine Tony Awards for shows including “Spamalot,” and “The Band’s Visit!”and promoted the first ever Farm Aid concert and has worked on tours for Robin Williams, Rolling Stones, Madonna, Eric Idle. Frank Sinatra and the Baseball Hall of Fame traveling exhibit.

“Circus entertainment is family entertainment, and we want to invite your family to be a part of ours. We can’t wait to reveal the new show that will certainly mix traditional circus with modern updates,” said Wallenda.

“Working with these three legendary producers who are so passionate about revitalizing the Big Apple Circus, we have come up with a jaw-dropping show that will captivate our audience,” McKinley said.

“We were in disbelief when the doors of the Big Apple Circus shuttered, but now it’s time for one of America’s most endearing shows to make a triumphant return. We plan to offer new surprises in a safe, family environment and hope it will provide some respite from this rough period in our country. We’re looking forward to welcoming back the kids, and presenting an amazing evening for parents and their kids that’s safe for everyone , but Nik’, said Cohl.

“I’m proud to partner with Michael, Nik and Phil to present the Big Apple Circus to fans who have been missing out on this one-of-a-kind entertainment. We’re determined to make it an experience you won’t forget,” added Granat.

The Big Apple Circus will follow New York State, New York City and CDC guidelines to ensure the safety of our Big Apple Circus guests, cast, employees and production staff, as a priority. Attendees over 12 must wear masks inside and show proof of vaccination. Children under 12 must wear masks.

Conversation with Patrick Cassidy

I had the great pleasure of appearing on Patrick Cassidy’s Studio Tenn Talk show this past week. Patrick and I have known each other for several years. It started with our friendship when he and his mother, Shirley Jones appeared in a concert version of The Music Man at the Hartford Symphony. The first fifteen minutes is an interview with Kenny Dozier who is doing great work at the Kennie Playhouse in Nashville. Enjoy!

A look back at “Le Reve – the Dream”

The articles below were posted when the re-imagined “Le Reve – the Dream” reopened in 2018. The company of Olympic skilled performers, creative artistic staff and talented crew created one of the most outstanding and award winning spectacles in the history of the Las Vegas. I had the honor of serving as director with this creative team of theater artists whose dedication to their show was undying. Unfortunately, “Le Reve – the Dream”‘ closed in March of 2020 due to Covid 19. It is my sincere hope the pandemic will not take away the grand spectacles that defined Las Vegas entertainment.

Enjoy the look back at “Le Reve – the Dream.” photo by Tomasz Rasso

Covid 19 takes its toll

Wynn Las Vegas closes ‘Le Rêve’ for good

Dacha Nedorezova created the synchro ballets for “Le Reve”
By Brock Radke (contact)

Published Friday, Aug. 14, 2020 | 6 p.m.

Updated Friday, Aug. 14, 2020 | 10:45 p.m.

The first large-scale Las Vegas production show to permanently close due to the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most acclaimed performances to ever hit the Strip. Wynn Las Vegas confirmed “Le Rêve” has shuttered for good after more than 6,000 shows over the last 15 years.

“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent physical distancing requirements for which an end-date cannot be predicted, but are necessary to keep our guests safe, we have been forced to close the award-wining show ‘Le Rêve — The Dream.’”

That is the official statement released by Wynn about the resort’s signature show, which was awarded Best Production Show in Las Vegas for a record nine consecutive years by the Southern Nevada Concierge Association.

A cast and crew of approximately 275 are now without work.

Before March’s entertainment shutdown, “Le Rêve” was performed twice nightly Fridays through Tuesdays at the custom-built, 1,500-seat Wynn Theater. The acrobatic, aquatic spectacular premiered on May 6, 2005, as the new resort’s resident show and was originally created by Franco Dragone, the former Cirque du Soleil director who also created “O” at Bellagio and Celine Dion’s “A New Day” at Caesars Palace.

“Le Rêve” was renowned for its dramatic theater-in-the-round setting and high divers and acrobats flying in and out of a 1 million-gallon, 27-foot-deep pool. The show was refreshed with new costumes, music, choreography and lighting concepts in 2018 and continued to run as one of the most popular shows on the Strip.

Le Reve gets the Benzinger Touch

Las Vegas Sun

February 22, 2018

Bigger and brighter, the award-winning ‘Le Rêve’ moves into the future

Le Reve’s acrobatics are among the Strip’s most mind-blowing feats.
photo by Tomasz Rasso

By Brock Radke (contact)

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 | 2 a.m.

Suzy Benzinger has been designing costumes for films, commercials and theatrical productions like the original “Miss Saigon” on Broadway for more than 40 years. She’s never had an experience like the one at “Le Rêve.”

“I’d have to say ‘Le Rêve’ is probably the most challenging of all, but very rewarding,” says Benzinger. “It is the element of water for sure, but it’s also the idea that you have to put clothing on these performers that are able to move in ways most people’s bodies don’t move. What they do is superhuman. They are world-class athletes.”

Creating vibrant new costumes for the superhuman cast of more than 90 performers in the long-running, award-winning aquatic spectacular at the Wynn Theater is just one dimension of the recently completed reimagining of “Le Rêve.” It’s also equipped with all-new music, choreography and lighting concepts, making this show renovation the biggest since it debuted in its custom-built theater-in-the-round with the opening of Wynn Las Vegas in 2005.

Director Philip William McKinley, who previously helmed the resort’s Broadway-style production “Showstoppers,” began working with “Le Rêve” two years ago, when the process of redevelopment began. Tackling this major update to one of Las Vegas’ most popular and complicated production shows was a daunting task.

“I worked with (legendary stage producer and director) George Abbott when he was 100 years old and I asked him one time, ‘How can you continue to do this?’ He said two things. One was that he never did the same show the same way, he always thought of a different way,” McKinley says. “And the second really stuck with me. He said, ‘I always do things that scare the hell out of me.’ So yes, when I was asked to do this, it is pretty daunting, but it piques my curiosity and artists work best when they’re curious about something.”

The show’s classic narrative is intact, following the fantastic, sometimes harrowing journey of “The Dreamer” into a surreal world where she must choose between true love and dark desire. Dancing, diving, romance, comedy, synchronized swimming and aerial acrobatics are all part of “Le Rêve,” voted Best Show in Las Vegas for seven straight years by the Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association.

The primary objectives in making changes to the show, explains McKinley, were to better connect the pieces of the story and to brighten things up visually, making each performance pop.

“It was quite dark and I don’t mean the subject matter. It was dark, lighting-wise, so we brightened those things up, the costumes especially,” he says. “There’s more color, more use of Swarovski crystals and the sets have been repainted and made brighter. I think I approached it more as a fairy tale with a hero and a villain, so it became this adventure in how we would get to that. But we didn’t want to lose the abstract quality of the show.”

Benzinger’s new costumes had to continue to function in an out of the water, hide harnesses and look incredible, but “clothing has to tell the story, too,” she says. “We definitely tried to bring more color and excitement. Some costumes became layers, revealing another costume underneath, but that turns into the complication of where does that other one go? It’s a lot of fun. Being forced to make a change creates a lot of fun ideas, but the change never really stops. It’s a living thing.”

“Le Rêve” has its own costume shop at Wynn so repairs and alterations are always happening. “Everyone has an individual fitting and all performers are different in how they like their costumes to fit, but it still has to look like a group for the show,” Benzinger says. “I want them to feel like a million dollars when they put it on. If every performer isn’t comfortable, I haven’t done my job.”

The show’s new score composed by music director Benoit Jutras with lyrics by Maribeth Derry might be one of the most striking changes for those who have seen “Le Rêve” a few times. The songs seem to push to the story forward in a more energetic way while better connecting the audience to the characters. Of course, accomplishing that musical adjustment wasn’t easy.

“It was an interesting process for Benoit because he had a full score that was the show, so to reimagine or redevelop that music and how it all fits together was a difficult task,” says McKinley. “But it was a fascinating process and one I enjoyed a lot. The show is like a giant clock and if one gear has to be changed, it affects the entire process.”

The music affects the choreography and timing, and the costumes affect each performer’s movements. The lighting changes the way we see the show but also the way the performers see their own stage, which has moving parts, fountains and fire and a 1.1 million-gallon pool.

“One of the most difficult scenes is the finale when there’s all those dives off the apparatus,” says McKinley. “I wanted to have a continuous flow of diving and that’s not an easy moment. I’m very fortunate in that we have great coaches who are there to make the impossible possible. I can say I would like to have this happen, and they jump over all the hurdles to make it happen. And they love doing it. If we’re not taking risks, the show would not be the same thing.”

“Le Rêve” is performed at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday through Tuesday at the Wynn Theater (3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 702-770-9966) and more information can be found at

Kats review of the revamped show

Shared from the 2018-02-25 Las Vegas Review Journal eEdition

‘Le Reve’ revamp shrugs off Wynn scandal


A scene from “Le Reve,” playing at the Wynn Las Vegas
photo by Tomasz Rasso

IN the middle of it all, Wynn Las Vegas’ aquatic production show has been overhauled.

“Le Reve,” which opened the hotel in 2005 and has served as one of Steve Wynn’s many pet projects over the years, boasts new scenes, staging and costumes and a new music score. This work had been enacted before Wynn stepped down from the company on Feb. 6, 2018.

Similar to “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers,” which closed its two-year run last December, “Le Reve” carries Wynn’s ever-present artistic imprint. He was involved in every facet of the show, from its early development under then-director Franco Dragone to its revamp over the past two years.

The man who worked at Wynn’s side during that two year stretch, famed director of spectacles Philip Wm. McKinley, has plainly stated his opinion about Wynn’s creative contributions. When asked if he would miss working with Wynn from a strictly artistic standpoint, McKinley responded with theatrical grandeur.

“The simple answer to that is anybody who ignores or devalues what Steve Wynn has done for Vegas is an idiot,” McKinley said during a phone interview last week. “I mean, I’ll be blunt about it. Do you take everything away? Do you take every single piece of success away? His value as a creative genius is not diminished. His talent doesn’t all of a sudden vanish into the ether.

“So yes, of course, as I would miss anyone with whom I’ve had such a relationship and collaborated with.”

In the revamp of “Le Reve,” McKinley has also worked on a tight team that included Wynn General Manager of Entertainment Operations Rick Gray; music director Benoit Jutras and lyricist Maribeth Derry, who developed 13 new songs in the new show; choreographer Marguerite Derricks; costume designer Suzy Benzinger and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

Relaunched a couple of weeks ago, the production refocuses the storyline of main character The Dreamer, who is driven by competing forces “True Love and Dark Passion”

Moving away from the more obscure, implied plotline was important in keeping the performances sharp, McKinley said.

“The show has been amazing and the performers incredible, while dealing with an art form that is abstract in its very existence,” McKinley said. “It is not an art form that lends itself easily to linear storytelling. So the first thing he wanted was a clearer storyline, and the first thing we focused on was the story of the Dream Master, how to create that by integrating the principal performers more thoroughly through the show. We wanted to tell the story while not losing the abstract, nonlinear quality of linear art.”

But there are plenty of linear, sensory-stimulating qualities to the new “Le Reve.” The show features 16 fire-belching devices, 172 fountains, a dozen umbrella-fashioned waterfalls, a rain curtain of nearly 50 feet tall and also a360-degree wall of water in the theater-in-the-round design.

A passionate artist in all of his projects, McKinley said he plans to remain a part of the Wynn creative team for the foreseeable future.

“I would enjoy that very much. I enjoy being there, I enjoy working with Rick Gray, and we have worked together many times already,” McKinley said. “This process makes me exercise every aspect of my creativity, and that’s what I love about it.”

He then chuckled and added, “In a week or so, we’ll know about a new project that will be happening in Las Vegas. I’ll tease you just a little bit.”John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @ JohnnyKats1 on Instagram

Brock Radke’s review

Refreshed “Le Reve” offers a one-of-a-kind experience

Tomasz Smiela created the acrobatic feats of the Gold Tree with the Olympic skilled acrobats – photo by Tomasz Rasso

Le Reve’s acrobatics are among the Strip’s most mind-blowing feats.

By Brock Radke (contact)

Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 | 2 a.m.

“Le Rêve” is celebrating 12 years this summer, right around 5,700 shows, and while the aquatic spectacle at Wynn Las Vegas has always been subject to small creative updates, its production team just put the finishing touches on a more comprehensive enhancement designed to further contemporize the choreography, music and visual effects over the last year. Costumes are all new. A million-dollar upgrade to the lighting equipment brings a new perspective. The music is all new, with 13 fresh songs, and a new scene called “Paso,” heavy on dance on synchronized swimming, has been added right after the exhilarating 80-foot dive drop.

What this all means is that now is a great time to see “Le Rêve,” whether you’ve seen it before or not. And if you do, I recommend considering the pricier but unique “Dream Seating” experience, the top ring of this dramatic, one-of-a-kind theater-in-the-round. Your seat there is equipped with a monitor that provides views from beneath the surface of the 1.1 million gallon, 26-foot-deep tank that serves as the stage, as well as behind-the-scenes glimpses of what’s happening high above the pool. Somehow the inner workings of this massive production — and sometimes, what might happen next — only increases the excitement.

There may have been a time when Vegas visitors mistook “Le Rêve” as a Cirque du Soleil show, comparing it to Bellagio’s “O” or another production because of visual similarities. But I’ve seen both productions now within a few weeks of each other, and other than the element of water and the fact they’re both created by Franco Dragone, I see no such similarities. “Le Rêve” has a very clear narrative driving the action as the heroine, “The Dreamer,” see-saws back and forth between her dueling desires for love and passion, mind or body. She explores both in a journey through a fantasy realm, backed by much more approachable music performed live with lyrics sung in English. Cirque shows revel in the surreal and move farther into that ocean as the productions go one; “Le Rêve” goes deeper only into its own story and the breath-taking world it creates.

The show’s muscular acrobatics are among the Strip’s most mind-blowing feats, and the constant rise and plunge of characters from the ceiling to the water below is rhythmically hypnotic and, at times, feels quite dangerous. This is not a subtle spectacle, and its powerful, sexy choreography — the stuff onstage as well as what’s happening in the air and the water — demands attention amid special effects and athletic accomplishments.

“Le Rêve” is performed Friday through Tuesday at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Wynn Theater. Find more information at

A master stroke – West Side Story at Salzburg

West Side Story – Salzburg – Scene from “Tonight”  –  photo by Silvia Lelli

By Jean Michel Pennetier | Sun, May 15th, 2016

Artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival since 2012, and confirmed until 2021, Cecilia Bartoli performs this year a masterstroke.For this edition the theme of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story was certainly a relevant title, but far expertise Salzburg and especially musical talent of Roman diva approaching fifty. On this last point, the difficulty is cleverly diverted by director Philip William McKinley . In a flashback, Maria remembers past events. She wears mourning clothes.Its double plays and dance, but she sings, sometimes outlining steps.Sometimes the two characters interact, as when Maria yesterday looks in a mirror in preparing her appointment with Tony, while Maria today contemplates the other side. Without being original the process is efficient and excellently resolved far from dulling the show, this distancing reinforces the contrary emotion transfiguring some ways bluettes in tragedy. McKinley led us well to a relevant conclusion and closer to the original Shakespearean Maria throws herself under the wheels of the subway and joined her lover in death.

To fill the huge stage Manege rocks, George Tsypin designed a spectacular set design on several levels. The different places of action are perfectly integrated bar at the scene sewing shop on the first floor, the second chamber Maria, deep underground, etc. The movable panels emit or limit the following space requirements: fights, dances or rather intimate scenes. Gigantism that has not thwart the fluidity worthy of the best run-Broadway shows. The flashy costumes Ann Hould-Ward are aesthetically beautiful, and enable good spot different clans on the stage area. Also excellent lighting for Patrick Woodroffe , also varying moods depending on the booklet. In such a place, it was essential to add sound artists, but things made ​​with relative discretion and perfect spatial.

Cecilia Bartoli embodies Maria a little ripe, fruity timbre, singing served by impeccable technique. In this directory is not expected, the surprise comes mainly from the emotional charge of his interpretation, of great strength and great accuracy. Despite the flashback, Bartoli portrays not a Maria destroyed by the loss of her lover, but hopeful contrary, it is animated by the certainty that she will find Tony beyond death, after a last nostalgic ride in his memories. True operatic tenor Norman Reinhardt camps Tony perfect musicality, the bright timbre, the superb treble, playing different registers (chest voice, mixed voices) at the option of the dramatic necessities. Unlike some singers who occasionally tried to gender, Reinhardt knows obscure lyrical origins and sing like a true artist of music . Excellent actor, he lacks the youth to be truly credible face to partners: here, Tony is definitely happening in the world of adults. The rest of the cast is dramatically and vocally excellent, worthy of the best productions of Broadway, particularly with the amazing and moving Anita Karen Olivo . The ballets have not all the desired fluidity, but no doubt they will be perfect for the recovery of this summer.

The choice of Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra is another stroke of genius. Never this partition has been directed with such a fever, such a rate, such colors: the rigor of a symphony orchestra combined with the brilliance of a Latin formation. Especially, Dudamel will search that partition sounds, dissonances, effects that had never been heard before (extraordinary introduction of “America”, unrecognizable). And this research is never at the expense of the theater and singers with Dudamel is a team that is federated to the service of music.

Center stage: Salzburg Whitsun Festival

 25/05 14:38 CET
Center stage: Salzburg Whitsun Festival

Back to Musica

THE POWER OF THE VOICE. In the art of opera, the voices of solo singers and choruses unite with the work of composers, librettists, directors, conductors and orchestras to create unique lyrical and dramatic compositions

‘West Side Story’

Broadway comes to Salzburg

Philip William McKinley is known as a director of large-scale shows. The musical spectacular ‘‘ShowStoppers’’ at Steve Wynn’s Encore resort in Las Vegas is his latest, and he took over ‘‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,’’ replacing Julie Taymor, in 2011 until the show closed in January 2014. But, as Cecilia Bartoli, the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, points out, he is also a classically trained pianist and opera singer, having performed at the New York City Opera in the 1980s when it was run by Beverly Sills.

So he should feel at home in the huge space of the Felsenreitschule — built in 1693 as a summer riding school for the prince-archbishops of Salzburg and used by the Salzburg Festival as a theater since 1926 — where a new production of ‘‘West Side Story’’ will run May 13 and 15, and Aug. 20-29.

‘‘He has done amazing things in unusual spaces,’’ says Bartoli, ‘‘such as ‘Ben Hur Live,’’’ which premiered in 2009 at the O2 Arena in London. Much of the core creative team for that show — the choreographer Liam Steel, the lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and the costume designer Ann Hould-Ward — are also developing ‘‘West Side Story’’ with McKinley. The stage designer, George Tsypin, who was the artistic director and production designer for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia in 2014, has had a relationship with the festival for more than 20 years.

‘‘They are all equally versatile in opera, theater, rock concerts and mass shows all over the world,’’ says Bartoli. But she also points out that the focus is not only on the spectacle of the show: ‘‘‘West Side Story’ occupies its own territory between opera, operetta and musical.’’

Like ‘‘Candide,’’ which Leonard Bernstein was composing at the same time, the show not only ‘‘incorporates light music and jazz, but also classical and even contemporary music,’’ says Bartoli. ‘‘Or, as Bernstein said, the chief problem is to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and abstract and representational dancing.’’ And ‘‘West Side Story’’ has the additional element of Latin music in the mix (it was also a hit, unlike ‘‘Candide’’).

The direction and choreography were by Jerome Robbins, and his inspiration guides McKinley and Steel in their conception of the new production, along with the show’s themes, which were also innovative for Broadway. Although Robbins and Bernstein — along with the third collaborator, the playwright and director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book — based the story on Shakespeare’s ‘‘Romeo and Juliet,’’ they brought the story into contemporary New York of the 1950s.

Philip William McKinley, director of the Whitsun Festival’s ‘‘West Side Story’’
Credit: Glenn Grayson

That aspect of the work will be important for McKinley’s staging. ‘‘At the time,’’ he says, ‘‘in ’57, it was very violent and gritty, and I’ll want to bring that aspect to the forefront of our production. It’s not a light musical comedy — it’s a dramatic piece, which is why it works so well in an opera house. I think we deal with more dramatic pieces in an opera house — pieces that are bigger emotionally.’’

The director notes that the story of rival clans and star-crossed lovers bears many interpretations — he notes a modern-day ‘‘particularly gothic’’ production recently by the Komische Oper Berlin and a 1998-99 production in Japan by the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female troupe — but he is keeping the original rivalry between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Of the show’s creators, he says it’s not a question of ‘‘copying’’ their staging, but rather looking into the reasons for the choices they made: ‘‘You find out why they did what they did. What was their approach? What was their sensibility? Then you take that into the contemporary world. What will create that sensibility for today’s audience?’’

Ethnic tensions and xenophobia are problems that resonate in contemporary society, he adds. He notes that he has been struck by the particularly divisive atmosphere in the United States during the presidential campaign. ‘‘Those themes are all occurring again in our society,’’ he says. Europe, too, has seen similar reactions to its Muslim population, especially after the recent influx of asylum seekers and other migrants from the Middle East.

The ‘‘grittiness and animosity’’ of the divide that Tony and Maria are trying to bridge calls for a very physical approach. ‘‘That’s one reason why I was so delighted that Liam Steel is the choreographer,’’ he says. ‘‘His choreography comes out of a very athletic sensibility.’’

Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the Simón Bolívar Symphony
Credit: Richard Reinsdorf

He is enthusiastic about the choice of Gustavo Dudamel, who will conduct the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. ‘‘You’re looking at a gentleman who mirrors the passion, intensity and vitality that Bernstein had,’’ he says. ‘‘Gustavo has this unbridled passion and spirit that so matches this music. He feels it. The Latin part of it is his home, his inner soul.’’

Bartoli was insistent on having a proper orchestra, ‘‘rather than 10 to 12 players and some synthesizers, as has become the rule for touring productions,’’ she says. Dudamel and the orchestra he leads were an obvious choice, she adds.

The 35-year-old conductor is also a good fit for the themes of the story McKinley highlights. He, and the Simón Bolívar orchestra, are products of Venezuela’s El Sistema, which offers free music education to disadvantaged young people. Dudamel consistently makes the point that music is a force for positive social change. Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he has been artistic director since 2009, also have a Sistema-inspired program, and in February Dudamel took the Youth Orchestra LA to the Super Bowl to perform with Beyoncé, Bruno Mars and Coldplay at halftime.

McKinley is ‘‘excited and honored’’ to be part of this show, and he credits Bartoli’s vision and willingness to take artistic risks. ‘‘It’s terrific to find someone who is that open and adventurous,’’ he says. ‘‘She’s absolutely fearless. I think that’s one reason she’s so brilliant. I respect her ability to fling open doors to new ideas.’’

‘‘‘West Side Story’’ occupies its own territory between opera, operetta and musical’

A new production of ‘‘West Side Story,’’ starring Cecilia Bartoli as Maria, is the centerpiece of this year’s Whitsun Festival
Credit: Silvia Lelli


A fresh approach to landmark dance

Along with its dark, urban atmosphere and themes, contemporary social commentary and artful music, the 1957 Broadway musical ‘‘West Side Story’’ was notable for its use of dance as a theatrical and storytelling element. It was Jerome Robbins who enlisted the composer Leonard Bernstein and the writer Arthur Laurents into developing the show. Robbins was credited for its conception and created its choreography, for which he won a Tony Award (he also shared the best-director Academy Award for the 1961 film version, which won best picture and nine other Oscars).

How much does Robbins’s work influence a choreographer working on a new production, as is Liam Steel, the choreographer for the Salzburg Whitsun Festival’s show? ‘‘You can’t get away from it,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s a saving thing, but it’s also what you’re battling against all the time. For years and years, you just did Jerome Robbins’s original staging. When you can do fresh choreography, you think, that’s fantastic, the freedom! But the second thought is, how do you reinvent the wheel? The only thing you can possibly do is make it your own.’’

In order to do that, he thought about how he saw the setting and who the characters were: rival gangs. Robbins’s jazz-ballet form was about upward movement — balletic leaps, for example. Steel found that odd, looking at what men actually do when they’re preparing to fight. ‘‘If you look at boxers or capoeiristas, the first thing they do is drop their weight, which is the opposite of what Jerome Robbins did. So that gave me a choreographic starting point for a fresh approach. Lowering the center of gravity, using the floor much more, gives it a masculine, testosterone-fueled, fighting feel.’’

He is also taking account of the very large space in which the show will be staged — the Felsenreitschule, a former riding school. ‘‘It’s like a football pitch,’’ says Steel. ‘‘That sets parameters as well.’’

The director, Philip William McKinley, is keeping the original setting of the story, which was contemporary in 1957, but which makes ‘‘West Side Story’’ a period piece nearly 60 years later. ‘‘It is set in the ’50s,’’ says Steel, ‘‘but I’m not a slave to that in terms of the style of the period. But for things like the ‘Mambo,’ I will give a strong nod to it. You’re using dance and movement to express things that aren’t about the period — it’s about expressing emotions and communicating through that movement.’’

McKinley agrees. ‘‘It’s not about doing the steps,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s what you’re saying with the choreography. The characters tell their story through their movement. When they dance, you see the inner monologue happening. A movement is not just a movement, it is telling you an inner story. That’s why I like to work with Liam so much — it’s not just choreography, there’s a story that’s happening.’’

That means that the dancers need also to be good actors — and singers as well. ‘‘There’s not a musical that requires triple-threat performers more than this show,’’ Steel says. ‘‘You cannot get away with people who can’t dance, and they need to be able to sing, and they need to be good actors. And I didn’t want twirly dancers onstage — I wanted men who looked like men and moved like men. And women who looked like women and moved like women.’’

Finding those triple-threat performers meant a wide-ranging casting process, with calls going out to the contemporary dance world around Europe and auditions held in Salzburg, Berlin and London. ‘‘I was seeing 30 people at a time every half hour,’’ he says. ‘‘I saw over 200 people in London, and that was on a short list.’’

The choreographer Liam Steel, Whitsun choreographer
Credit: Anne Zeuner / SF

Cecilia Bartoli

‘I love to break down boundaries’

Cecilia Bartoli’s fifth season as artistic director and star of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival is one of continuity and innovation. Her choices of roles since 2012 — Cleopatra in Handel’s ‘‘Giulio Cesare in Egitto,’’ Bellini’s Druid priestess ‘‘Norma,’’ Rossini’s ‘‘La Cenerentola’’ and the Euripidean priestess in Gluck’s ‘‘Iphigénie en Tauride’’ — have also been thematic programming choices. This year’s program, however, differs in that the main production — a new one of ‘‘West Side Story’’ — is the first to come from Broadway rather than 18th- and 19th-century European opera houses.

‘‘As the first woman ever in this position,’’ says Bartoli, ‘‘I am, of course, interested in picking out themes that are related to women — and since, historically, most female subjects in art were treated by men, the result is often an interesting image of women refracted through male thought. You might say you often learn more about men and their attitudes than about women.’’

Her aim is to explore the themes through a variety of art forms. ‘‘We have created symphony and chamber music concerts, newly staged opera productions, plays, exhibitions, films, dinners and a collaboration with the legendary Salzburg Marionette Theater,’’ she says. ‘‘Whitsun in Salzburg certainly requires some church music, and I am most delighted to have brought ballet back to the Salzburg Festival — wonderful companies from the Mariinsky, from Hamburg and Stuttgart.’’

This year, in commemoration of Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago, the festival will take ‘‘Romeo and Juliet’’ as its through line. In addition to ‘‘West Side Story,’’ which translated Shakespeare’s tragedy to 20th-century New York, the tale of doomed lovers will be told through concerts, ballet, theater and cinema.

The Broadway classic — a collaboration by its composer, Leonard Bernstein, and choreographer, Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — reflects this mix of disciplines. ‘‘I love the unexpected and to break down boundaries,’’ she says. The work, she explains, ‘‘encompasses my idea of the festival perfectly — something made up of theater, opera, dance and literature, lightness and profundity in form, feeling and subject matter. And, of course, the social and political questions it raises have become so incredibly topical again.’’There is also her attraction to the role of Maria. ‘‘Like most people,’’ she says, ‘‘I have known the songs from ‘West Side Story’ since my adolescence, probably even better than some operas. And I still like to think of myself as the simple, warm-hearted, dreamy girl from next door, which for me makes Maria into an absolute dream role.’’

To sing Tony opposite Bartoli, ‘‘we decided to cast an opera singer,’’ she says, the American tenor Norman Reinhardt, who will also be singing Nemorino in Donizetti’s ‘‘L’elisir d’amore’’ at the Hamburg State Opera in June. Karen Olivo (Anita) and George Akram (Bernardo) come from Laurents’s 2009 revival of ‘‘West Side Story,’’ for which Olivo won a Tony. Dan Burton plays Riff.

Of her approach to singing Maria, Bartoli says: ‘‘Bernstein himself described Maria’s voice as girlish and lyrical in the high, then again just as dark and mature in the low register. I will need to try to find this balance, and to make it sound simple and natural, straight from the heart! This requires good technique with fine and real voice control, but it should still seem natural and remain intelligible, with colors and shades of emotion.

‘‘I will try my best to match Leonard Bernstein’s dream, following his words: ‘There is an ideal way of hearing ‘‘One Hand, One Heart,’’’ for example. I’ve always kept in the back of my mind a feeling that maybe someday I could hear that song sung the way I’ve always wanted it to be sung, which is quite slow, with real operatic voice control and quality.’’

Her five-year term as artistic director has been renewed until 2021, and she looks to build on the foundation of her first mandate. ‘‘The audience figures and the economic success have risen sharply,’’ she notes. ‘‘We will continue to collaborate with international stars while integrating local forces as well. But what I am most proud of is that over the five years we have established a feeling of continuity and a team spirit with all those working at the festival, something that is vital in order to create a product of excellence within an extremely short and intense period of time.’’

‘Like many people, I have known the songs of ‘‘West Side Story’’ since my adolescence’

Cecilia Bartoli, the Salzburg Whitsun Festival’s artistic director
Credit: ROLEX / Hugo Glendinning


As beautiful inside and she is on the out!  There is a reason she is among the top 10 in the world…she is generous and loving to everyone.  A very rare jewel!  Te adoro Cecilia!