Sunday, January 13, 2008


So the next piece, I am going to talk about was the Scott Joplin ballet.

Choreographing to Joplin is nothing new. When I started dancing in the 70's, entire ballet classes were being set to Joplin rags. The Royal Ballet has a lovely piece called Elite Syncopations, chorographed by Sir Kenneth McMillan, set to Joplin's music. And one of Martha Graham's last pieces "The Maple Leaf Rag" utilizes it as well.

So you have to ask yourself, "What can I bring to this music that hasn't already been done?"

Well, I had already set a few pieces for a concert with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, a few years back. A solo, a group piece for ten girls, and a trio. I pulled out the old archival VHS to look at it and I liked alot of what I saw.

When performing at an orchestra's show, you don't want to be so interesting that they don't pay attention to the orchestra. That isn't why they are paying you. You are there to add to the orchestra's glory. Not detract. If you are hiring an orchestra to play for your ballet company then it is a different matter.

So looking at the tape, I felt that the old stuff was perfect for the corps de ballet. I would just need to add some "interest" in front of the dance, rather than behind, as the orchestra had been.

So I came up with the idea of three central couples. The girls are seperated from the corps costume-wise, in that they were black tutus under their scarlet tunics. Again these are rehearsal shots. Eventually the guys would be wearing red vests and white dress shirts. Like banjo players at old time ice cream parlors.

I think this juxtapsotion of men's contemporary and women's classical costumes is important. Joplin saw himself as a classical composer, not a pouplar one. He took his pieces very seriously.

There are various pieces (like Balanchine's Western Symphony) which take the classical idiom of ballet and mix it with orchestrated folk tunes to create a fun sort of pastiche. "Oh look at the dancing cowboys and saloon girls."

Don't misunderstand me, I enjoy these types of dances (and there is an image of Tanaquil Le Clercq in Western Symphony that haunts me to this day), but I don't believe that is what Scott Joplin would have wanted. The idea that the ballet dancers were suddenly dancing with a patina of "down homey" style.

Which is not to say that there are not some jazz and ragtime influences in the steps of the piece. There are.

But they are presented in a classical way.

What that means is that we are dealing with an aesthetic of line. Think classical Greek columns. Now, the line doesn't need to be straight, but it does need to be clearly and cleanly defined. And the relationships of lines created need to be knowingly harmonious or dissident.

Well enough of that.

Joplinesque was a fun ballet to set (aren't they all?). It is made up of 8 movements.

The first movement starts with my three couples standing in front of my ten corps girls. Then ten corps girls are actually split into 3 groups. A quartet in the middle, and on either side is a soloist with a retinue of two corps girls each. All of the groups move independently of each other, coming together at various times in the music and then spliting apart again. Towards the end of the first movement, the lead couples exit leaving the stage to the corps.

Here are the corps girls in a moment of relaxation. We are probably setting some lights, which explains why they are all in a line. Sometimes we need to stop to fix a certain light cue. We need the dancers stand in their places on stage so we can see what is going on, but they can relax while they are there. We try to set as much as we can without the dancers (as it can be a very time consuming process), but fine tuning always needs to be done.

The first movement of the piece had a great deal of music visualization. Music visualization is a term for choreography that visually matches what is happening musically. It can either be rhythmic, where it matches the exact rhythmic figure of a song (&1,2,&a3,&a4) or tonal, matching high notes with high steps and low notes with low steps.

Having started as a musician (10 years on the clarinet and in choir) music visualization comes naturally to me. But it isn't always the BEST choice. Dance is NOT just visual music. It is an art form unto itself. And if all you do is slavishly follow another artform, you are not a thinking artist.

In this case, because there WAS so much going on previously... when the groups came together, I wanted the audience to feel bolstered and comfortable. So there were huge plies in 2nd position on point on accents, big kicks on high notes and slides into splits on musical slides.

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