Lights up on Belmont Avenue, where “the street starts sighin’ and the girls strut by in a group.” This is A Bronx Tale, the musical iteration of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical story about Calogero (Bobby Conte Thornton), growing up in the ’60s torn between the earnest struggle modeled by his father and the violent reverence commanded by the local mob boss. But A Bronx Tale is also a story of warring communities and a forbidden love, much like West Side Story.
Just as Jets battled Sharks, slick and cool versus bombastic and fiery, the cultures of the south Bronx clash in the buoyant punching of Italian Belmont Avenue and the grounded stepping of African-American Webster Avenue.
Nowhere better is this conflict depicted than in Tony Award nominee Sergio Trujillo’s choreography. “It’s very specific,” says Ariana DeBose, who plays Calogero’s love, Jane. “You see Belmont and you see Webster, and each neighborhood has their own swag, and it’s a very specific swag.”
Unlike West Side Story, which featured Jets choreography by the masterful Jerome Robbins and Sharks choreography by the lesser known Peter Gennaro (who was not billed at the time), Trujillo developed separate movement vocabularies for Belmont and Webster, setting the full show himself and alternating between styles.
But don’t think this duality creates any lack of authenticity. Trujillo is well-versed in the dance of the ’50s and ’60s, having choreographed such iconic shows as Jersey Boys, Memphis, and All Shook Up. He brings that expertise to the Bronx. “In terms of the wealth of knowledge and research, I know all of the steps,” he says. “For me to draw on the style from the period, it wasn’t an easy thing, but it was effortless.”
His movement for the Italians of Belmont Avenue harkens back to his previous credits, but Webster Avenue demanded Trujillo dig deeper into his repertoire. “I had a flirtatious affair with stepping in Memphis,” he says, referencing the work he did for the number “Radio” in the Tony-winning musical. “But I always wanted to maximize on [that technique] because it was a such a popular dance trend in the ’50s and ’60s. It was a competitive dance and song form between sororities and fraternities in the African-American community, and it was actually made popular by the Temptations and the Four Tops. So I thought, ‘This is the perfect place to put it, these kids are hanging out on Webster Avenue in the Bronx.’ It just made sense.”
And Trujillo found the talent in DeBose and fellow dancers Gilbert L. Baily II, Christiani Pitts, Trista Dollison and Bradley Gibson. “Ariana DeBose is a real triple threat,” says Trujillo. “She can really deliver.”
“I make it my business to be very versatile,” says DeBose, who broke out as The Bullet in the original ensemble of Hamilton. “But Sergio has been wonderful in this process because he has very much molded [‘Webster Avenue’] around me.”
That customization applies to all of his dancers. “I have these little groups of dancers, or dance companies, because I can talk to [the Belmont kids] in one way and the Webster kids in another way,” Trujillo says. “What we’ve developed is a shorthand.”
Trujillo anchors his movement to the script and its characters to create two distinguishable groups. “When the ball gets passed to you, you have to carry the story forward, and you can’t think in terms of dance for the pure sake of dance. It’s important to think, ‘How does that character move?’”
Under Trujillo’s eye? With sharpness and intent—but most of all, with specificity.