Interview by Sarah Achenbach
In December 2018, Ui-Seng François had nearly completed her first semester as a dance major at Peabody when her aunt sent her a Playbill casting call for a newly imagined revival of the Broadway classic West Side Story. The production, created by experimental director Ivo van Hove, would be known for its massive video screen backdrop and brand-new choreography. Ten months and half a dozen auditions later, François took a leave of absence from Peabody to begin rehearsals. The show opened in February 2020 and managed to offer a month’s worth of performances before going on hiatus due to COVID-19 restrictions. There are plans for the show to resume in 2021. Meanwhile, François, a sophomore and Baltimore Scholar, returned home to Upper Fells Point over the summer and reenrolled in Peabody in fall 2020.
What was the audition process like?
I drove up to New York for the audition with my mother and two other Peabody students. This was the biggest audition I ever had, and the first one outside of auditioning for schools. There were hundreds and hundreds of people there — at least 400 female dancers.
After I got a call back, I took the bus to New York every or every other weekend for callbacks. I went back at least five or six times. In March 2019, I finally got the offer to play a Jet girl, Minnie, in West Side Story. (I also understudy the role of Anybodys, the tomboy who hangs with the Jets.) I was actually in class at Peabody when I got the news. I went out to the courtyard to take the call. Then I came back to class to let my peers know, and we had a mini-celebration.
What were the challengesin rehearsing?
Rehearsals began in October 2019, and we would come to rehearsal at 10:00 am and leave around 5:00 or 7:00 pm. At the beginning, when we were dancing all the time, I gained a new respect for my body and learned how to care for it, how to prioritize and make sure I had all the rest I needed because my body is my work, and I have to treat it with a lot of care. I was definitely sore in the beginning. The bigger challenge was learning a lot of choreography in a short amount of time (and then having to retrograde it all!). It was definitely mentally challenging.
What was different aboutthis production?
First, our show had a record-breaking number of [performers making their] Broadway debuts — 33 out of a cast of 50.
This show was also different because we had new choreography by a contemporary choreographer [Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker]. There was a lot of exploration and communication between the dancers and choreographers. It was very collaborative. Cast members who had been on Broadway before said it was unlike anything they ever experienced on Broadway, so that was interesting for me as a newcomer to be a part of.
How did your time at Peabody prepare you for this experience?
I’ve learned the importance of conditioning, how to be an active listener, and about what it takes to be fully prepared, like taking notes and warming up my body and voice. danah bella [professor and chair of the Dance Department] has also been so encouraging. Outside of the physical dance training support, danah supported me by looking over my contract with me and sharing tips about working in the professional dance world. I learned a strong work ethic from my class with (ballet faculty) Kristen Stevenson. And my friend and classmate Elizabeth Chaillé inspires me constantly.
What have you enjoyed most about being in West Side Story?
One of the best parts was being surrounded by a cast that was so talented, that inspired me every single day, that I was able to learn from.
My favorite moments are when I go on stage for the first time every night and realize, “Wow, I’m performing on a Broadway stage.” And the curtain call, when I’m bowing — to be able to look out in the audience. It’s a moment of gratitude.