Yesenia Ayala has been a standout ensemble dancer ever since her Broadway debut in 2017. Now, she's stepping out of the chorus, playing Anita in the new West Side Story revival on the Great White Way.
It's the fulfillment of a dream that seemed a far reach from her childhood living room in Gastonia, NC. "There are not a lot of Latina roles, especially ones that dance and have such depth to them," she says, getting a little teary. "It's an honor and a privilege to step into these shoes. Anita is a beautiful character."
Ayala is no stranger to West Side Story. She was part of two touring companies of the show, and will play a Shark girl in Steven Spielberg's film adaption, out in theaters this December.
Her star turn on Broadway is part of a particularly newsworthy WSS production. This revival marks the first time a Broadway version of the show will not include the original Jerome Robbins choreography; instead, it features new dances by minimalist Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Opening February 20 at the Broadway Theatre in NYC, the show also omits the song "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, allowing it to run without an intermission. And it features many other elements WSS audiences have never seen before, including onstage cameras, maneuvered by some members of the 50-person cast.
Director Ivo van Hove has said that he's aiming to make the show, which premiered on Broadway in 1957, relevant in the 21st century. "I think it's going to be interesting," Ayala says. "It's going to make people think about choreography and what it can say."
Ayala, who had never worked with De Keersmaeker prior to this production, got involved with the revival back in December 2018. She was part of a pre-Broadway dance lab, which she described as a "boot camp" for De Keersmaeker's style. It was a way for the choreographer to see what Ayala could bring to the table using her phrases. "She would give us certain guidelines," Ayala remembers. "It was more about the exploration of her movement."
Initially, Ayala was offered a role as one of the Shark girls, and she happily accepted. "Yesenia's combination of intuition and intelligence, and her experience in both ballet and Broadway, were a great asset to this process," says De Keersmaeker. "It's a challenge to find a representation that respects this timeless story, while at the same time opens up a contemporary take on relations between men and women in this Latinx community."
A few months later, Ayala was in the middle of rehearsing for the WSS movie when she got called back to audition for Anita in the Broadway production. Then, during filming, she found out she'd landed the role—which meant she was surrounded by artists who understood just how she felt. "I was absolutely elated for her," says Ariana DeBose, the Broadway triple threat who plays Anita in the new movie. "If I remember correctly, we had a very girly jump-for-joy moment!"
Discovering a Passion
Ayala took a roundabout path to that moment. She was born in Teaneck, NJ, and moved to Gastonia (just outside of Charlotte) when she was 4. At 5, her uncle, who lived with her family, suggested dance class. "He noticed that I always got up and danced during commercial breaks while we were watching TV," Ayala says.
As a kid taking ballet, tap, jazz, and modern at Gaston Dance Theatre, Ayala was obsessed with movie musicals, including Hello, Dolly!, Cabaret, and, of course WSS. "I would always go to the video store and feel like I was the only one renting from the 'Musical' section," she remembers. Watching "America" on her television screen, Ayala saw Anita as "the ultimate person." She described Rita Moreno's Oscar-winning performance in the original film as "courageous," "loving," and "fiery." "I saw myself in that, especially as a Latina."
For a while, Ayala felt out of place in Gastonia. "I didn't really see Hispanic kids until I was in high school," she recalled. Instead, she identified with Latinx actresses, like Moreno and Chita Rivera, the original Anita on Broadway.
Ayala ended up enrolling at East Carolina University as a biology major. "I liked science a lot, and I was really good at it in school," she says of her decision. "I thought I'd go to medical school at some point." But after taking a few extracurricular dance classes to maintain her training, she was bitten again by the theater bug. Ayala auditioned for her school's acting program and was accepted.
It was, as she remembers, a "crisis moment." Ayala is a first-generation American, and her Colombian parents had certain expectations for her and her brother. "It was that cliché of 'I have to be a lawyer, I have to be a doctor,' " Ayala says. Eventually, though, her parents came around. "Ultimately, they were like, 'Well, if that's what you want to do and that's what's going to make you happy, then do it.' "
Booking It (and Booking It, and Booking It)
Theatrical success soon followed, with professional jobs off-Broadway and as a dancing bear in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. 2017's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory marked Ayala's Broadway debut. 2018's Carousel revival came next. That's where she met choreographer Justin Peck, who asked her to be a part of a dance workshop for Spielberg's West Side Story film, which led to her movie role as a Shark girl. And now, she's Anita on Broadway.
The stage production presents a unique challenge for Ayala, as she crafts her own version of an already established and coveted role. "It's definitely overwhelming," she says. "But knowing that it's such a different take and twist on a classic, I feel like I can approach it as new."
While she hasn't gotten a chance to speak to Moreno (who plays Valentine in the film) about inhabiting Anita, she did get some one-on-one time with Chita Rivera when the living legend visited the set one day. "I think I said, 'I just have such big shoes to fill,'" Ayala remembers. "And she said, 'No, no. You have no shoes to fill. You fill your own shoes and you make it your own.' "
DeBose also had advice for the rising star. "I told her, 'Follow your instincts. They'll never steer you wrong,' " DeBose says. "Anita is nothing but love. Lead with that, and your version of the character will fly."