If Riff, the leader of the Jets, looks familiar when West Side Story’s sashaying street gangs return to Broadway this month, chances are you’re one of the Step It Up and Dance faithful. The cable reality show, which pitted 12 dancers against one another in everything from tangos to hip hop to Damn Yankees, was won by the dynamic Cody Green, whose mixture of athleticism and flirtatiousness—and no small measure of skill—made him an early favorite on the grueling Bravo series.
Winning the role of Riff wasn’t a walk in the park either. In fact, you might say it took him a decade and a half. Green first sang “Cool” in public at the age of 12 or 13. Already a seasoned performer with Visions, his mother’s youth dance company in Vancouver, he was taking an audition class with several hundred people. “The teacher asked me to come up onstage and sing a song,” he recalls. “I was a huge fan of the music of West Side Story, so I started singing ‘Cool.’ But I snapped my fingers on the one and the three beat instead of the two and the four. The teacher laughed a little and corrected me —‘Boy,’ snap, ‘boy,’ snap, ‘crazy boy’.”
Green stayed cool. But before he could bring his properly snapping Riff to Broadway—under the direction of the show’s writer, Arthur Laurents, and with Joey McKneely re-creating the now classic Jerome Robbins choreography—Green, 28, spent time honing his dancing all over the globe. He traveled with Visions to Australia and Beijing and Siberia; he danced in a show at Tokyo Disney; he studied at Juilliard; he toured with Mamma Mia! and Movin’ Out; and he had an ensemble role on Broadway in Kathleen Marshall’s production of Grease—the one whose stars were cast on yet another television reality competition, You’re the One That I Want.
Although he wasn’t one of those boys who know at 7 that they want to be dancers, it does seem that in some ways his career was pre-ordained: His mother, Susie Green, had danced professionally before segueing to her Joy of Movement studio and the Visions company. Her mother had been a dancer, and her mother before that. Dance may have been the family business, but there was no pressure on Cody to join it. “My parents were, ‘Do whatever you want to do,’” he says. “I loved being active. I did soccer, basketball, baseball, volleyball. Eventually, everything else fell away.”
Susie had performed with the National Ballet of Canada before moving for a while to England to do modern dance. As Cody and his older sister were growing up, Susie would regularly take them to Los Angeles for custom-made intensives—a week’s worth of classes at Tremaine, Debbie Reynolds’ Studio F, and The Edge, among others.
His mother’s determination to expose him to many different teachers and styles fed right in to Green’s own eclecticism. “I was always hungry for knowledge,” he says, “wanting to learn new steps, new moves, new dance styles. I was taught to be open to everything.” Which was, of course, exactly what he needed to be to come out on top in Step It Up.
“It was a cool experience,” he says of the show. “But it was also a really big challenge. We shot eight of the episodes in a month—three weeks, almost. The dancing itself was challenging, but even more challenging was the schedule. You had to pace yourself and stay sane. You get pressured to react—they want you to do something crazy so they can catch that emotion on the show. My focus was to stay strong and healthy and represent my dancing in the best way I could.”
He finds West Side Story a different kind of challenge. He’d always wanted to play Riff, he says. “That kind of role marries acting, singing, and dancing all together.” Still, he found it a little surprising when he auditioned that it wasn’t until the final callback, for the entire production team, that he got a chance to dance. And even as rehearsals progressed before the out-of-town opening in Washington, DC, he says, “A lot of the focus was on scene work and acting.”
McKneely’s dance rehearsals made acting key as well. “You have to dance in the moment, in the character,” Green says. “The choreography stays very connected to the energy of the show.” And it’s not easy: “It’s really athletic. It’s a lot of start and stop, run and stay and change directions. And all that turning and jumping.” Keeping the energy level contained is tough, too, he says. “The dancing is very aggressive. You’re trying to push it to the limit. But you also have to hold yourself back from doing everything you want—because you want to explode.”
Sylviane Gold writes for
The New York Times and other publications.
Photo: Joan Marcus, Courtesy West Side Story