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  • Writer's pictureKristyn Burtt

Gaby Diaz's Next Stop is Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story'

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

After Gaby Diaz won Season 12 of So You Think You Can Dance, she pursued a commercial dance career in Los Angeles. She was successfully working in the dance industry and was an All-Star on Seasons 13 and 14 on SYTYCD

Yet Gaby found herself wanting more in her dance training. At the Season 14 finale, while proudly watching her winning partner, Lex Ishimoto, do interviews with the press, she leaned over and whispered to me, "I'm moving to Chicago tomorrow."

That move set Gaby off on a journey from the Hubbard Street’s Professional Program to an apprentice position in the company to Steven Spielberg's West Side Story next December. It's a story that dancers should pay attention to because the additional training she sought in the middle of her flourishing career, has made an even bigger impact than she ever imagined.

Dance Dish met up with Gaby on a recent trip to New York, where she's setting the stage for the next act in her career.

Dance Dish: The last time we talked, you were training at Hubbard Street and in the early stages of a new part of your dance journey.

Gaby Diaz: The additional training changed my dancing. You do So You Think and you feel so much pressure to ride the momentum and get yourself out there and work, work, work as much as you can. You're grateful for all the work and incredibly eager.

So I was happy to do all the work, and as I told you, I felt I was bad. I wanted more for myself dance-wise. I needed to fine-tune some things and take a step back and realize there's no rush. I was 21 and I needed to retool and just go back for a second.

I did a year of the Hubbard Street program and then they asked me to be an apprentice with the company. So then my second year I was with the company full time. I got to perform with them, which was incredible. It was everything I wanted to do since I was in high school, Hubbard Street was it.

DD: How did the West Side Story audition come about? Everyone thinks you have to live in New York or Los Angeles to get cast in a movie.

Gaby: My dear friend Ricky Ubeda, I owe him for life. He did Carousel, which was choreographed by Justin Peck and Justin Peck is doing the choreography for the West Side Story movie. Ricky reached out to me and he told me, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — Spielberg's West Side Story." We both happened to be the exact age and Hispanic, everything was just right.

He told me I have to audition. I couldn't make it to the New York audition because I was performing with Hubbard Street. I'm performing with this company and hoping to have a full-contract position the next season, but this type of opportunity doesn't happen. So I spoke to the director of the company and he was the most wonderful and supportive of me pursuing the audition.

I auditioned in Miami on Halloween weekend in 2018. I called my mom and told her I was coming home. I called my studio dance teacher and asked her to get me in for a voice lesson. I had to learn to sing "I Feel Pretty" in one day.

DD: Tell us about the Miami audition.

Gaby: Justin was not there for my audition. His wife, Patricia [Delgado], who worked with him on the film, ran the audition. She's from Miami, which was crazy because she was a principal with Miami City Ballet for 17 years or so and I grew up idolizing her. So to then be auditioning in front of her, it was this weird full-circle moment. 

There were callbacks. I was emailing back and forth with them because I was performing with Hubbard Street and I could not leave, which was tough. I was worried I had missed a big opportunity. I found out I had the job in early 2019. Ricky and I called each other and cried. 

DD: How long was the rehearsal period for the film?

Gaby: I started rehearsals end of April, beginning of May and our first film day was the last week of June. We filmed through the heatwave. We filmed the biggest dance number for the Sharks in the movie ["America"] on the hottest day of the summer. I think it was 108 degrees. 

DD: Since you can't reveal anything about the film, how do you put people's minds at ease if they are hesitant to see anything beyond the original film?

Gaby:  I grew up obsessed with the movie. I watched it back because I think everybody had nerves about touching something so precious. I watched it back and again after we finished wrapping. That movie was so special to us and I do believe this version will be that to a younger generation. 

Everything that you loved about the original is in this film. It's incredible. I love the talent. They didn't cast these big-name celebrities for the leads other than Ansel Elgort and he was wonderful. The girl who played Maria, Rachel Zegler, graduated from high school while in rehearsals for the movie. It's a lot of fresh faces in the film.

DD: Have you been able to step back and take in the special summer you had working with a legendary director on an iconic project?

Gaby: It's similar to how I felt when I finished So You Think. We aren't as close as we were on the show, but we all went through something together that no one else understands. As much as you try to explain it to people, you just can't put it into words. That's how I felt when we wrapped the movie. A lot of us were saying that even if no one ever saw this movie, we had the most incredible summer working together.

DN: What is the next step for you career-wise?

Gaby: New York will be home soon. I'm transitioning, moving from Chicago to New York. I have some exciting stuff ahead in theater. I grew up doing all styles of dance, and in high school, I thought I wanted to be in a contemporary company and just do that for the rest of my life. I still want to do that, but I also miss tapping, 

Tap has become a big part of my life again recently, which has been so fun. I want to learn how to act and sing a little. I am allowing myself to change my mind. I think it's important to not step into it and assume, Oh, I'll just be good at this. I'm going to take singing and acting lessons. If I'm diving into theater, I'm going back into training.

Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ opens nationwide on Dec. 18, 2020.


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