By Glenda Rice Collins Updated 2-14-18
TULSA, Okla. USA — This past weekend’s North American premiere of Derek Deane’s Strictly Gershwin ballet extravaganza, presented by Tulsa Ballet, proved to be a fitting and well-received homage to the genius and versatility of American composer George Gershwin and the staying-power of his music.
A near sell-out of Tulsa Performing Arts Center Chapman Hall theater seats for three weekend performances prompted officials to open optional balcony seating Friday, due to popular demand. Some 2,000 attendees Friday night were on hand to cheer on a diverse team of some 100 staged performers, which included: veteran Broadway-style tap dancers, Balanchine-style ballet artists, bicyclists, and Tulsa Symphony Orchestra musicians, under the frisky baton of Gareth Valentine.
Charismatic maestro Valentine, who presided over the 2008 Strictly Gershwin world premiere presented by the English National Ballet at Royal Albert Hall, set the tone for the Friday Tulsa PAC evening performance during the exuberant Overture, as somewhat of a dancer himself, by keeping ‘fascinatin’ rhythm’ defined with a few baton antics of his own
According to Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini, British choreographer Derek Deane reworked his Strictly Gershwin production for the proscenium stage for the Queensland Ballet in Brisbane, Australia in recent years. This is the version seen here.
A Diverse Cast Dazzles
Dazzling guest performers in this glittering Tulsa event included leading tap dancers Maria Briggs, Kris Kerr, and Bill Simpson, along with Vito Bernasconi, who joined the Queensland Ballet in 2013. Bernasconi was featured in the An American in Paris segment with Minori Sakita, Thursday and Saturday.
Memorable moments of contemporary choreographic artistry include Friday night’s performance of the lyrical Someone to Watch Over Me, with dancers Maine Kawashima and Rodrigo Hermesmeyer and guest Broadway veteran vocalist, soprano Teri Bibb; and a seductive interpretation of It Ain’t Necessarily So, with passionate dancers Beatrice Sebelin and Jonnathan Ramirez. Sleek costuming design by Roberta Guidi Di Bagno brought sexy, contemporary flair to creatively interpret the same music which accompanied the amusing Sportin’ Life character in Gershwin’s celebrated Porgy and Bess opera — well done!
Music and Mental Images
The formal tutus designed for the Rhapsody in Blue ballet segment, though exquisite in detail and structure, seemed a bit incongruous for the Tin Pan Alley era during which the music was first composed as a transitional experiment in modern music for jazz band, blurring the lines between classical and jazz to evoke an era (premiered in 1924). For me, rhapsodic thoughts evoke images of garments that flow. Nonetheless, the ‘blue velvet’ tutu shades and the bevy of ballerinas therein proved to be crowd-pleasers, given the familiarity of the evocative and spirited music, et al!
The glitzy and colorful costumes for An American in Paris, echoed images of the well-known film ballet version, now with some of the head gear cleverly shaped as mini Eiffel Towers. The scenic design took audiences to Paris and beyond with bright lights and flair!
A rousing rendition of Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band featured the footwork fireworks of talented tappers Kris Kerr and Bill Simpson, as did the familiar I Got Rhythm and the ebullient Fascinatin’ Rhythm Finale with the full company. Bravo!
Part of the joy of such Broadway to Hollywood tributes, after all, is the colorful array of brilliant images brought to mind by the enduring music which, in this case, serves to conjure up the full diversity of creative genius George and Ira Gershwin inspired in venues ranging from Tin Pan Alley melodies to present day concert hall stages.
Strictly Gershwin is aided in pondering such memories of the past with evocative projected images of such Hollywood dancer-icons as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and a multitude of familiar Hollywood couples, from years gone by. posed together for full romantic impact
The Hollywood Influence and Why we Dance
Two years ago Jean–Christophe Maillot brought, from Monaco, his somewhat Hollywood-inspired ballet, Choré to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California for its U.S. debut presented by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. Having attended the premiere, I can’t avoid reminiscing.
Maillot also references the Hollywood influence of dance icons Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as described by Joseph Carman, February 10, 2016 in the Los Angeles Times:
“A masked couple — a ghostly, faceless Astaire and Rogers — swirls to composer Danny Elfman’s ominous orchestral score “Serenada Schizophrana.” The feathered fans of a Busby Berkeley kickline morph into the Hiroshima mushroom cloud. And doll-like female figures, suspended on wires and manipulated by their male partners, glide listlessly through space to a John Cage score…The motivation for choreographing the 75-minute Choré came from Maillot’s desire for a philosophical discussion of how and why we dance.”
According to Carman, Maillot goes on to ponder, through his complex work influenced by French writer Jean Rouaud, (winner of the Prix Goncourt — France’s top literary prize — for the historical novel Fields of Glory.) “… the relationship of Hollywood, ballet and modern dance to major events of the 20th century.”
And so it seems artistically, what goes around, comes around. Maillot was influenced by his studies in France with Oklahoma-born American Indian ballerina Rosella Hightower (1920-2008). The first few lines of his own biographical sketch:
“Rosella Hightower liked to say of her student Jean-Christophe Maillot, that his life was just a union of opposites. In fact, for the current Choreographer-Director of the Ballets de Monte-Carlo, dance combines with theatre, enters the ring under a big top, evolves into the arena of visual arts, is fuelled by the most diverse scores and explores different forms of literature…”
“Choré” is Maillot’s discourse on American dance and the political eras that have shaped it, echoes Carman.
Political Implications Forthcoming
Tulsa Ballet Signature Series, May 3-6, 2018 features three culturally stimulating and thought-provoking works meant to ignite conversation and action. This politically focused program reminds us of the dangers in allowing history to repeat itself, and inspires us to keep moving forward.
Kurt Jooss’s 1932 The Green Table is a powerful anti-war statement that continues to remain provocative and socially relevant today. Rassemblement (which translates to “gathering”) is Nacho Duato’s moving look at the “liberating powers of music and dance” as related to human rights issues.
In contrast, an exciting new work by Tulsa Ballet resident choreographer and audience favorite Ma Cong will debut.
March 16-18, 2018 Tulsa Ballet presents Cinderella, with choreography by Ben Stevenson and music by Sergei Prokofiev.
April 13-15, 2018 TBII Emerging Choreographer’s Showcase
For additional details and tickets, visit tulsaballet.org.
Credits: Banner photo and image inserts provided by Tulsa Ballet.