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West Side Story Dreams

I first spoke with Harrison Coll when I was writing a feature about young boys performing the role of Nutcracker Prince for the first time at New York City Ballet. Coll, then a member of the corps, had performed the part as a kid, and has since danced almost every role in that ballet, from Candy Cane to Cavalier, including hiding under Marie’s bed and wheeling it around the stage. One could say he grew up with New York City Ballet, starting at School of American Ballet at 7, before joining the company and rising to the role of soloist in 2018. He has become a particular favorite of Justin Peck’s, who has cast him several of his ballets. It was Peck who brought Coll to Steven Spielberg’s attention, which led to his being cast as one of the Jets in the new revival of West Side Story (which is excellent, by the way).

Harrison Coll and the Jets on set for West Side Story by Steven Spielberg. Photograph by Niko Tavernise

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Coll is a real New York kid, too, which is why when we spoke recently we couldn’t help discussing real estate.

We’re practically neighbors . . .

Yeah, I grew up on 108th and now I live on West 100th, just seven blocks from where I grew up. I found this place on StreetEasy. It's a gem.

I love that you’re the quintessential New Yorker, and that you ended up performing in a new movie version of West Side Story, which is also about New York.

It was wild. I heard about it through Justin [Peck] when he was tapped to choreograph. He asked me if I would workshop some of the movement for “Cool.” They day before Spielberg was supposed to come and watch, I was in Brooklyn, looking at a motorcycle I found on Craigslist. The motorcycle was terrible, I didn't buy it. Then when we went to get ice-cream from an ice-cream truck on the street. I took one step off the curb, and my ankle twisted under me. I just knew it was over. The first thing I did was call Justin. I couldn’t dance the next day, and I couldn’t dance with City Ballet because my ankle was severely sprained. So I went to Santa Fe where my grandma lives to just disconnect and heal. And then I got an email asking, “can you be in the city in three days? We’re auditioning for West Side Story.” I was in shock.

Harrison Coll and Company in Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

How did you prepare?

My uncle is a character actor. I've always looked up to him. His stage name is Luce Rains, but his real name is Steven Schwartz. He’s done a lot of bit parts here and there. For example, he gets shot in the head in No Country for Old Men and he's the sheriff in 3:10 to Yuma. He helped me run my lines in the car—he was my acting coach for three days. It was all in the family. For the audition, I put on a white t-shirt and blue jeans, like the Riff I grew up with. That’s way we do it in “West Side Story Suite” at City Ballet. I felt like it was in my bones, even in my blood. I mean, I grew up in New York. My dad was one of the first people who introduced me to West Side Story on film. The day I learned the choreography for “Cool”from Jean Pierre Frohlich [the Robbins repetiteur at City Ballet], I did it for my dad when I got home. And he knew the choreography. I asked him “how do you know this?” and he said, “yeah, Jerry taught me.”

So your dad was a dancer too? What was his name?

Yeah, my dad was a dancer, and my mother was also a Broadway performer. My dad’s stage name was Ricky Coll, but his birth name was Fausto Enrique Collazo. He was in the original Gypsy with Ethel Merman. He knew Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. And he was also just a fanatic. He was a New York kid, born in 1946, this was his era. He was Cuban American. But he was told by his parents not to speak Spanish outside of the house. My dad's side of the family immigrated here as a huge family. They always had their community around them. But we never spoke Spanish at home. He tried to get as far away from his Cuban heritage as possible. But I have this embedded Cuban heritage, which I kept very private during the West Side Story process because I was auditioning to be a Jet.

What was the experience on set like?

It was a unique environment. There was the excitement of being part of something as historic and important as West Side Story, which is still so relevant. The team was really trying to increase the movie’s cultural authenticity. Sondheim came in and changed the lyrics. We sat down with a 1950s Puerto Rican police officer, and a 1950s Irish police officer. A Puerto Rican historian from SUNY came to talk about the experience of being Puerto Rican and American in that period. And we talked about the Jets as well, because we needed that context to understand why we were so territorial. We didn't have jobs, we didn't have parents, we didn't have support. All we had was each other.

When you’re a Jet. Harrison Coll on set of West Side Story, film by Steven Spielberg. Photograph by Ben Cook.

Did Spielberg, or Justin, keep the two groups—the Sharks and the Jets—apart, like they say Jerome Robbins did in the original production?

Actually, this was the most familial, loving, and collaborative group. We all took a company class together every morning, so that everyone could commune and establish this common dance language as the backbone. Even Rachel Zegler [who played Maria, a non-dancing role] took barre. Ansel Elgort [who played Tony] took barre, and that was cool because he and I were at the School of American Ballet together when we were kids.

Did you know him?

Yeah, we were friends. We went to grade school together at Trinity and he was in the Nutcracker the year before me. It was so crazy that we were able to reconnect on this film.

Those dance scenes, like “Cool,” which you shot on a pier on the Hudson, look so physical.

Let me tell you, we got bumps. I had to get a tetanus shot on set. On Father's Day we wrapped “Cool.” That was the song I remember dancing with my dad in the living room as a kid. Can I read you something?

Coll reads from a testimonial he wrote for the “West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film” coffee table book by Laurent Bouzereau:

“On set that day I seized the opportunity to memorialize my father . . . I brought a small picture of him, one of his old guayabera shirts, his watch, and a tin of his ashes and I shared Father's Day with him . . . After the last shot when the crew began to close down the set, Justin, Patricia, Craig, Ansel, Mike, the other Jets and I sat in a circle at the end of the pier to thank the universe for the past few days . . . We made our way over to this perfect little secluded beach that overlooked the harbor and the set perfectly . . . and I walked to the water and said ‘I love you—rest in peace,’ and threw the ashes into the water.”

That is an amazing story, so deeply personal. It must have meant so much. Did the experience of making this film make you want to make more movies, or work on Broadway, like your parents?

I've started to take more of a serious, extracurricular interest in it, but wouldn’t say it’s something I'm actively pursuing. Because after the pandemic what happened for me was that I became even more grateful for being at New York City Ballet. While I was in it, I was like, oh, this is amazing. But it's West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, with choreography by Justin Peck. I happened to be at the right time and the right place, but I’m a dancer.

Harrison Coll as Herr Drosselmeier and Alysse Barnecut as Maris in “The Nutcracker” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

You don’t get to act much at New York City Ballet, but I’ve always found you to be such a natural performer. And then recently, I saw you play Drosselmeyer in “The Nutcracker,” for whom you have created such a nuanced, detailed character.

It helps that I’ve grown up with the production. I was Nutcracker Prince and a kid in the party scene when I was at SAB. I experienced what it was like to have certain Drosselmeyers who engaged you; it was so much more fun for us kids. So that’s my priority, because “The Nutcracker” is what helped solidify my desire to become a dancer, so it's my obligation to make sure that this is a great experience for the kids. I also grew up with a grandfather who was a magician as a hobby.

You were injured not long before the pandemic, weren’t you?

Yeah, I missed the fall [2019] season. I was intending to come back for the spring season. And then the pandemic hit.

What was the injury?

It was a patella tendon tear that I suffered as a result of repeated landings on concrete.

Was that related to the film?

Yeah, it was intense, filming on New York streets. It’s no joke. I was demonstrating a lot. But it was well worth it, no regrets. Injections worked for me, it wasn't anything major.

And then the pandemic.

By the time I got back last fall, I had basically been away for three years. Three years of my identity being in flux. Before I did West Side Story, I had just been promoted to soloist, but I hadn’t gotten to do much yet. That was in my head during the pandemic. I wanted to go back, get in shape, and recommit to the ballet. It was hard mentally for me, because I don’t like dancing for myself. I love sharing the space with a lot of people. My love for dance is a push and pull because my body has been so unpredictable. When you get injured so much you start having an animosity toward your own craft.

How was the fall season?

It was difficult because I wasn’t involved in a lot of pure ballet. We had Andrea Miller come in and work on a new piece, but my body wasn't prepared for the new style. I was full force committing to new partnering ideas and new elements of physical movement that I didn't know how to prepare for. I had been doing my ballet routine. My back went into a severe spasm, and I had to miss the first three weeks of the season and was only able to do “Chaconne” at the very end. When you're gone for that long, you start to have doubts, like, “can I still do this?” We’re in our prime now. Each day, each “Nutcracker,” I’m so grateful every single day.

Sara Adams and Harrison Coll in “The Nutcracker” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

How does it feel to be dancing Cavalier in “Nutcracker”?

Incredible. That role is so special. And I got to see Mira Nadon’s début as Dewdrop. It was an amazing thing to witness. It’s amazing to be in the company right now.

What are you looking forward to next season?

Well, Justin has created a new ballet in sneakers. There’s so much stylized movement vocabulary, and it's so fresh and new. It’s like he's reinventing the wheel again this time, using fairly complicated accappella music [Partita for 8 Voices, by Caroline Shaw]. That’s been so creatively nourishing. I'm dancing a duet with Taylor Stanley, an intricate, gender-ambiguous dance, partnering from our friendship and from our connection. I think it's going to be a great piece.

Do you feel fortunate to be part of the Justin Peck generation?

He was my Rat King when I was prince in “The Nutcracker”! I appreciate his process, and I feel like I understand his process. I do feel like I’m at the creative core of New York City Ballet right now. He’s the creative engine of the company. It's a huge honor to develop work in that laboratory the way some of Balanchine's key dancers did. This is my generation’s Balanchine as far as I’m concerned.

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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