The young toughs in "West Side Story" didn't see it coming.
As the Jets and Sharks clashed in a rehearsal room at the Guthrie Theater, choreographer Maija García cut into the middle of the scrum, leapt into the air, then barrel-rolled to drop-kick one of the fighters, her 3-inch heels stopping just inches from his face.
The room erupted in applause for her Baryshnikov-meets-Bruce Lee move.
It also demonstrated why Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj turned to García to put a fresh, fierce new face on the 61-year-old landmark musical, which opens Friday. The New York-based artist is not just a creator of poetic and kaleidoscopic movement. She's also a fearless, kick-butt dancer.
García's father, a Cuban refugee, learned English from the big-screen version of the show. She knows the Guthrie has a lot riding on its annual summer musical.
Can she make dance that speaks to this moment while still pleasing fans who see "West Side Story" as inseparable from the revolutionary mix of ballet, jazz and Latin dance created by original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins?
García's work can either elevate or sink the production.
"I'm not trying to outdo Jerome Robbins," she said the first day of rehearsal. "I'm trying to outdo myself."
They reflected "Jerry's spirit, his invention," said Rivera, who originated the role of Anita. "Dancing is acting anyhow, without words, and he made it deeper. He told the story through dance [and] captured the mood of the streets."
That is García's and Haj's intent, as well. On the first day of rehearsal, the director talked about gangs and age-old rivalries that spring anew, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Haj, whose parents were born in Palestine in the 1930s, teared up as he talked about recent casualties of that conflict, and the deep resonance of a story that he believes should be a relic of how humans once were, not as they are today.
Haj chose García for her dynamism. He had seen her on video, including her choreography for Spike Lee's film "ChiRaq," and knew of her long history with modern-dance luminary Bill T. Jones and his smash "Fela!" She served as associate choreographer on that show, and creative director for subsequent national tours.
Haj chose to update only the movement of "West Side Story"; the rest of the Leonard Bernstein show, from the costumes to the text by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, remains set in the 1950s, with just a few contemporary touches.
Watching a rehearsal, it's clear that Haj and García have developed a symbiotic partnership. This is the director's third musical on the Guthrie's thrust stage. "West Side Story" is a fairly massive production — 35 actors in all — so he keeps his eye on the big picture. As García worked with dancers on stage, Haj moved around the auditorium, tweaking the choreography as he viewed it from various perspectives.
García views the challenge in part as a geometry problem.
"You look at choreography in multiple ways," she said, "from the generation of movement that contains the intention — how do you express an idea physically? — to the macro level, which involves bodies in space in relationship to one another.
"We're looking at design, geometric patterns, collective action. There's a shifting rectangle onstage. There's a lot of sacred geometry — triangle, pyramid, diamond, parallelogram. We have a lot of planetary revolutions going on."
'Big-hearted and brave'
The maker of those revolutions is someone who once thought she might become an international diplomat. A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., García, 39, is the last of three girls born to a Cuban-American father and an American mother, who divorced when she was in grade school.
Her mother was García's first dance teacher, and the pull of that world soon elbowed her other dreams aside. She studied all kinds of movement, from ballet and modern to jazz and African.
As a young adult, she moved to San Francisco to dance but became bored; the work wasn't challenging enough and didn't connect with the broad world she knew. At a friend's suggestion, she moved to New York in 2004 with hopes of trying out for Jones' troupe.
"I auditioned everywhere and didn't get anything, so I started DJ-ing at this queer women's club," she said. "One night, this beautiful black woman with strong arms comes in. She's digging my music, so we got to talking and it turned out she was a member of Bill T.'s company."
Her new friend invited her to class. The rehearsal director invited her back. "Bill had just had knee surgery," García recalled. "I opened the door for him and it was like, 'Where have you been, old friend?' It was magical, and he said, 'I want you in the company.' "
She spent five years as a dancer for Jones, and five more working with him on the Tony Award-winning "Fela!"
Jones remains an admirer. In a phone interview, he described García as "big-hearted, intelligent and brave, with a deep interest in the world of music and dance. Maija is an artist who has this sacred wound and she wants to heal the world. She wants to make beauty and to get past whatever she's afraid of."
Right now, that involves taking on a monumental show that has profound meaning for her and for legions of fans who hold it dear and sacred. At a minimum, she does not want to mess it up.
Her father, she said, came to the United States as a child shortly after the 1959 Cuban revolution. He was part of a wave of 14,000 Cuban minors who emigrated through "Operación Pedro Pan," among them Miguel Bezos, stepfather of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
"My dad was on the beach in Miami with a bunch of other Cuban immigrant kids," she said. "He was thrown into school and there was no Spanish immersion; you were just dumb if you didn't speak English. He learned English listening to 'West Side Story.' "
He also lived that story, she said, finding community in clusters of young people who otherwise felt adrift and misunderstood.
"I'm supposed to make this show and bring it to life in a new way," she said. "It's turning into a heart-opening experience for me."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 • Twitter: @rohanpreston