West Side Stories: Gina Trikonis (Riff’s girlfriend Gaziella)

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez on April 15, 2012

Gina with Jerome Robbins

HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) — Another contributor to the book Our Story: Jets & Sharks – Then and Now is Jet dancer, Gina Trikonis (Graziella). Gina was born during WWII in what was then a rough New York tenement neighborhood known as Chelsea. Her Greek immigrant parents came to this country seeking the American dream, bringing their love of beauty, the arts and their rich culture with them.

As children, her parents instilled in her brothers and Gina that the arts spoke to their humanity; to that which made them human. The arts fed the soul and without them you shriveled up and died inside. Consequently, the arts became an integral part of their education. At age seven, Gina’s father took her to her first ballet class. The teacher put her feet in second position, she circled her arm and took her first plie to Chopin. Unexpected tears streamed down her cheeks and she knew then that this was what she was born to do.

Gina went on to study ballet with Maestro Corvino at the Met Ballet School, and jazz with Arleigh Peterson, Peter Gennaro, Matt Maddox and Luigi. As a teen, she auditioned for and, out of hundreds of hopefuls, was accepted at New York’s High School of Performing Arts as a dance major. Robert Joffrey was her ballet teacher. Soon after graduating, and at Peter Gennero’s prompting, Gina auditioned for Jerome Robbins and landed her first professional job as a replacement dancer in Broadway’s ground breaking West Side Story. She danced the role of the youngest Jet gang member, Minnie – Baby John’s (actor David Winter) girl friend. Though the show continued to play to full houses, Mr. Robbins asked Gina to join his touring company, Ballet USA. Things changed when he needed her back in the Broadway show and then wanted her for the West Side Story movie.

Ms. Trikonis was flown to the West Coast with no expectation of a role. Gina was thrilled to be fulfilling the childhood dream of dancing in a movie musical. Being given the role of Graziella, Riff’s girlfriend and lead dancer of the Jets, came as a complete surprise. After the movie, she continued to dance on numerous TV shows and movies. Among them were the Beatles Special for BBC-TV and the groundbreaking TV program Shindig. A highlight was dancing with iconic Fred Astaire on the Hollywood Palace. A neck injury, incurred during the filming of Shindig, put an end to her dance life.

Trikonis transitioned to behind the camera as a costumer/designer. Some of her costume credits include Facts of Life, Perfect Strangers, The Hogan Family and Full House. Gina is an ardent gardener, dog lover, and a foodie. For Gina, cooking a nourishing, beautifully prepared meal is a form of creative expression and a meditation. She continues to take ballet class for her body, but more importantly for her soul. Her parents’ love of the arts is encoded in her DNA. She is haunted by her father saying, “The arts speak to our humanity. Without the arts only part of you grows. Without the arts, without creative expression, without beauty, you shrivel up and die inside.” Gina thanks her parents for the legacy of their rich culture and unwavering support in pursuing her love of dance. The arts have blessed her life and made it extraordinary.

Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor, Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, spoke with Gina as part of his series on Our Story: Jets & Sharks – Then and Now

AC: At what point in life did you realize you were a dancer? Why did you commit to it?

GT: My father took me to my first ballet class at age seven. I took my first plie to Chopin with tears streaming down my cheeks, and knew this was what I was born to do. I just know. I committed to it because I had no choice but to do it.

AC: What were the steps leading to your finally getting the part in the movie West Side Story?

GT: I auditioned as a replacement for the original Broadway show of West Side Story and was chosen from hundreds of hopefuls. It was my first Broadway show. I think I was seventeen at the time. Then Mr. Robbins flew me to LA and I was part of the skeleton crew he used to stage the musical numbers and set his shots. He had me dance in for Anita in ‘Dance Hall’ and ‘America’ and Maria in ‘I Feel Pretty.’ When it came time to stage ‘Cool’ he had me stand in for Graziella. When I did the scene, where she cries before going into the garage and I cried real tears, he asked me to audition for the part of Anybody. After the screen test he told me I wasn’t boyish enough to play the part of a tomboy and I was their Graziella.

AC: How did you feel the day you landed the part? What was the reaction from family and friends and what scared you the most?

GT: I was shocked. You see I didn’t come expecting a part. Being a dancer in a Hollywood musical was a dream come true and I was happy with just that. Of course family and friends were thrilled. Mr. Robbins was known for changing his mind if he found someone he liked better, so I kind of took it with a grain of salt till I went for my first costume fitting. It was at that point I knew the part was mine.

AC: Best and worst of the Hollywood experience?

GT: Working with Jerome Robbins and being part of this cinematic masterpiece was the best. The worst for me was injuring my lower back during the filming of ‘Cool’ and having to dance with that painful injury.

AC: What was your reaction the first time you saw the feature film?

GT: I couldn’t believe how huge it looked on that gigantic wide screen! The stunning opening aerials of the city took my breath away.

AC: What was the first time you realized that you were famous? How did it effect getting other jobs and the career path you ended up perusing?

GT: I never thought of myself as being famous. I just went to dance auditions and either got the job or not. It wasn’t until many years later, when I became a costume supervisor, that I realized (and unbeknownst to me) that I had impacted young aspiring performers. I cannot begin to tell you how many young dancers and actors, on finding out I was Graziella in West Side, have said to me, “I became a dancer because of you. When I saw you on that big screen I wanted to dance just like you.”

AC: What kind of advice would you give to young dancers?

GT: My advise to young dancers is ballet class, ballet class, ballet class – no matter what form of dance you wish to pursue. Ballet is a dancer’s foundation. It gives technique, strength, and freedom to do just about anything. I can’t stress this enough. If you want to be an exceptional dancer, a real dancer, then take your ballet classes, like it or not. We had ballet class everyday. Jerry hired dancers and then fired them if he didn’t like how they did in class. I remember so clearly Jerry pointing a finger at me and with fire in his eyes saying, “Get your ass into ballet class.” And I’d respond, “Yes sir.”

AC: Who’s idea was it to write the book? What is the best part of the book for you?

GT: Bob Banas. The best part of the book for me is the journey down memory lane, reading the stories and finding out so much I didn’t know about my comrades back stories and the audition process.

AC: What has the response been regarding the book? Tell me about the joy of reliving a major event in your life.

GT: Our book signings have been very successful, which surprises me since it’s all word of mouth. People seem to love the book. They love the stories. What also surprised me was how truly loved this movie is. How cross-generational it is and, most of all, how generous the people we met at the signings have been.  Going back and revisiting was poignant. That was a long time ago and a lot of life has happened since. I had to do a lot of digging, but each remembrance was a key to another. In looking back I realized how young and clueless I was. We were kids, still wet behind the ears, babes working our butts off, having an outrageous time without a clue we were creating cinematic history. For me it was a fun dance job with fun people and I was having a blast doing what I loved.

AC: Over all, how did WSS change your life? What do people need to know about the film’s place in American history?

GT: It didn’t just change my life – it gave me my life. I owe everything to it. West Side Story is a timeless cinematic masterpiece, a work of art which, as mentioned before, crosses generational barriers and continues to stand the test of time. It speaks to our humanity and it will continue to speak to people long after you and I are gone.

AC: How do you feel about the dance competitions on TV? Good or bad for the art form?

GT: Well they’ve made dance popular. People enjoy watching them and that’s good for the art form.

AC: In light of your life’s work, what would you like your legacy to be?

GT: This is a tough question because for me, although I have done much, my life’s work hasn’t been about achieving and leaving a legacy. For me, my life’s work has been about being a decent human being, being there when needed, being a good listener, and touching people’s lives in a positive way. The legacy I leave behind are my children, Nick and Christina. What could be more important than that?

AC: Why should people buy the book and to whom would you recommend it?

GT: Because it’s a good read- anyone who loves the movie and/or is interested in being part of the industry needs to read it. Then they can see the kind of dedication, passion, love of the process, and hard work it takes to produce a timeless masterpiece.

Lois gancedo December 27, 2012

Buenas a todos alguien me puede informas de ese libro de westn side story soy un gran fan de esa pelicula y si ese libro esta en español , me gusta saber cosas de la peli anedoptas de todo ,,,,,una pregunta para kien pueda decirmela. Soy asturiano y en la peli hay un asturiano ke trabajo en la banda de los tiburones ke papel hacia por favor decirmelo. Un saludo

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