By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
I like to be in America! / OK by me in America! / Ev’rything free in America /
For a small fee in America!
With Puerto Rico languishing in the aftermath of a hurricane named Maria, these lyrics from the show-stopping number America will ring with a double-edged resonance when Miami City Ballet rumbles with Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite this month.
Principal soloist Nathalia Arja will be dancing — and singing — the song as Anita. Arja says she can easily relate to the Puerto Rican character immortalized in the Oscar-winning portrayal by Rita Moreno.
“Anita is a fiery woman. And that kind of is me,” says Arja, who 10 years ago left her home in Rio de Janeiro for a MCB School scholarship. “I’m a very fiery, loud Latin. When I’m with my Brazilian friends, I’m always the loudest.”
In honor of Robbins’ 100th birthday, the company is dedicating this season’s second program to the legendary choreographer’s works. In addition to the Suite, which it first performed in 2014, the program features three company premieres — Circus Polka, Other Dances and Robbins’ first hit, the still-shocking The Cage — as well as the other returning favorite, In the Night. Arja is also dancing the latter two, but the role of Anita is a special one for her.
“I just love that I can almost be myself,” Arja says. “I love bringing in my Latin side onstage, and I love acting and I love the drama. It is such a fulfilling role for any dancer because you’re really playing a human being. We get to scream, we get to shimmy, we get to talk.”
And, yes, in this ballet, the dancers even get to sing.
“This is for sure the most challenging thing for me,” says the 25-year-old ballerina who’s never sung in public. “Ballet is ballet but singing is a different world. It’s like me trying to show a football player how to do ballet and expect him to perform in front of millions of people.
“One of the hardest things for me as a non-singer is to sing and dance at the same time. When you’re dancing, you can’t ‘save breath’ so you can sing. And in terms of stamina, it’s very difficult because, being a Latin dance, it’s very high-energy. But they’re not expecting us to sound like Broadway stars. When I saw La La Land, I was like, alright, then I can sing, too.”
Having risen to principal soloist in 2016, Arja was a background dancer for America the last time MCB performed the piece. This time, she’ll be front and center — and “you know I’ll be terrified,” she admits. “People always say, ‘You make it look so easy.’ But they don’t know that we’re actually freaking out on the inside — but we take the challenge.”
MCB’s Program Two is Jan. 12-14 at Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami; Jan. 27-28 at Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale and Feb. 2-4 at Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. For more info, visit miamicityballet.org.