Jazz aged Ballet

Dayton Ballet’s 80th season opens with “The Great Gatsby”

Photo: Margot Aknin plays Daisy Buchanan (left) with Evan Pitts as Jay Gatsby (right).

By Arnecia Patterson
 When the curtain  goes up on the Dayton Ballet’s 80th season this month, there is a possibility that the majority of audience members will be younger than the company, itself, and certainly its conservatory-style training arm, the Dayton Ballet School. It was founded in 1927, ten years before the Dayton Ballet, and two years after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was published. The novel has been hailed as Fitzgerald’s greatest literary achievement, and its longevity and renown make it as ripe for choreography as stories about swans or nutcrackers.Narrative ballets are Ron Cunningham’s forte. He has created or restaged over fifty dances for the Sacramento Ballet where he is artistic co-director with his wife, Carinne Binda.  From his extensive body of work, the Dayton Ballet will present “The Great Gatsby” at the Victoria Theatre, Thursday Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday Oct. 27 and 28 at 8 p.m., and Sunday Oct. 29 at 3 p.m. Its staging in Dayton is a rarity; to see any Cunningham ballet outside of Sacramento is unique. In thirty years, he has restaged only one of his ballets for a company besides the Sacramento Ballet. The attentiveness and focus on Sacramento is what he believes infuses dance companies in small and mid-sized cities like Dayton, and he knew Josephine Schwarz, founder of the Dayton Ballet with her sister Hermene. “Companies like Dayton and Sacramento dance with passion because they believe in it and the integrity of dance means something,” said Cunningham after only two days of working with Dayton Ballet dancers.

In a world of tutus, pointe shoes, cavaliers, and princesses, “The Great Gatsby” is relatively modern, yet, like better known story ballets, it has a modicum of name recognition, even to people who have never been to the ballet. That is one reason why Cunningham prefers to choreograph dances with strong narratives. “I’m interested in creating ballets with narratives that don’t require a Ph.D. in culture to understand,” he explained. Clarity is desirable, but what about the experimentation that was part of the Dayton Ballet’s name initially? Yes, Josephine and Hermene Schwarz founded the Dayton Ballet as the Experimental Group for Young Dancers. How does such intention intersect with the presentation of a ballet choreographed with the presence of everyman in mind? The experimentation in Ron Cunningham’s “The Great Gatsby” lies in his textural re-creation of the 1920s tone through instrumental and vocal details, period dances, and peopled scenes. His version of the story embraces the spirit of the period with an original score and provides an aesthetic likeness of the era’s historical moniker, “The Jazz Age”.

The Devil is in the details

Storytelling, especially a branded one like “The Great Gatsby” may seem simple, but the novel’s dialogue and settings providing insights into the era are pointed, and need thoughtful curation when deciding what to include in a ballet. It has been made into three feature films—in 1949, 1974, and 2013—since its publication. Cunningham’s ballet follows the chronology of the film version featuring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan. He takes details from that telling to flesh out the overarching narrative. “There are a lot of interesting little side bits that I throw in there. The devil is in the details, so to speak. That’s how you get a lot of texture in the ballet,” said Cunningham. He cites Tom Buchanan’s trip to New York City with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, and the scene in which they purchase a puppy. There is the hustle and bustle of the city’s streets—complete with sailors, families, and school children—and the lavish parties. He knows that the details may be unexpected, perhaps unrecognizable in the moment, however, taken as part of the whole story they add needed elements to embellish the characters and their roles in the narrative arc. “I included things that helped to develop the characters and people so that you understand who they are,” said Cunningham.

His attention to scene and character enhance the choreography for each role. The ballet is centered on the same four men and three women who are written in the novel—Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson, the sportswoman, Jordan Baker, Myrtle’s husband, George, and the narrator, Nick Carraway. Stylized movements reflect their relationships—Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are balletic given the romantic feelings he carries for her, but that changes with Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson whose interactions are more illicit given the nature of their affair. There is less romantic feeling and more lust, for them, Cunningham has chosen more contemporary movement. “Tom and his mistress are pretty contemporary,” he explained. “Because there is lots of lust, I want to show that by the closeness of their bodies. They wrap around each other and roll on the ground, you get the idea that this is a hot, steamy relationship.” In the party scenes, social dances like the Charleston, Black Bottom, and Peabody make an appearance as well as American Tap.  All the dances are done to an original score by composer Billy Novick, played live. He will bring his Blue Syncopators to Dayton to perform with the Dayton Ballet, and they will be joined by Jamie Cordes, a local actor and singer with The Human Race Theatre Company who has the role of Nick Carraway. Felita LaRock, a singer based in Dayton, will join Cordes to sing the vocals in Novick’s score.

Song and dance?

It is not out of the ordinary for Felita LaRock to receive an e-mail from Neal Gittleman, music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra; the two have known each other for over a decade. Whenever he becomes aware of an opportunity for a professional vocalist in one of her many genres, he contacts her. The opportunity to sing the female vocal lines in Billy Novick’s original score to Cunningham’s “The Great Gatsby” still came as enough of a shock that she insisted on auditioning, even though both Gittleman and Novick had given their votes of confidence that she was right for the endeavor. Her concerns were with their desire for a brassy, brawny singer capable of grit in her delivery. Plus, LaRock had never sung for a ballet. As ballet goes, few people sing. The initial skepticism led her to question how she would meld with the professional requirements of the circumstances.

Even though LaRock has never performed with a ballet company, she has been connected with the Dayton’s performing arts scene for decades. She is a multi-genre vocalist who studied music at Central State University in Wilberforce, OH where she received her undergraduate degree. Now retired from the United States Air Force where she spent twenty years active duty with the Air Force Band of Flight, stateside, and the Air Force Band of the Pacific in Tokyo, LaRock has extensive performance and touring credits. She met Gittleman years ago when the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra collaborated with the Band of Flight, and they have been friends ever since. Her level of professionalism is military-grade. “There are instructors and leaders who teach you jobs that are wider than your expertise,” she said. “Year after year they give you different assignments. You’re not just a vocalist. You may work in public relations, deal with instruments, supply and budget management.”

Since retirement, LaRock admits to having to create opportunities to practice her craft as well as stay sharp and in good voice. She is affiliated with two local bands, “Moment’s Notice” led by Jerry Noble and “Bright Moments Quintet” led by Bill Burns. As she perfects her rendition of the period music composed for “The Great Gatsby,” the genre is concerning. “I know very little about jazz,” she admitted. “That’s not what I was permitted to listen to or perform in college. It was strictly classical.” LaRock sees high potential in performing despite the difference between her initial training and the requirements of Novick’s score. It conjures Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith. She excitedly describes a duet with Jamie Cordes with call and response scatting. “We have a tit for tat,” she said. “He might come up with something, and I am going to listen and scat right back. It’s a conversation and really fun to hear. It will be fresh every night.” Another duet on the program is the jazz standard “Ain’t We Got Fun?” LaRock characterizes her solos as raunchy and complementary to “The Great Gatsby” storyline.

Score one for dance

Through composing for independent choreographers and working as a dance studio accompanist, Billy Novick has developed a dance imagination that influences his compositions and facilitates the discipline in all its forms. As a composer for film, too, he understands comparisons and contrasts between disciplines, and within them. “Music for film is composed for accompaniment to setting, speech, or action. Dance is the same way, but a chaotic, cacophonous score may not be appropriate for dance,” he explained.  His understanding of the finer points of what movement requires—“ballet takes melody or counterpoint; modern is more disparate, jagged”—is what led to his highly admired score for “The Great Gatsby.”

It was initially written for Septime Webre’s ballet of the same name when Ron Cunningham heard it and decided to use it. For Cunningham’s ballet, Novick rewrote and rearranged parts of the score and has continued to fine-tune it for its Dayton premier. The continued work reflects Novick’s appreciation for collaboration. He finds it exciting to make the choreographer’s vision come true musically. “My strongest contribution is to offer musical possibilities of what the choreography might be,” he said.

Realizing “The Great Gatsby” led him to compile 32 songs—fourteen require vocals—and narration. Some songs are rearrangements of ‘20s-era standards, both well-known and obscure—“We Are All Going Calling on the Kaiser” was recorded in 1918 and did not have sheet music—others are new music for the ballet. The narration for Jamie Cordes/Nick Carraway, who speaks and sings, is from the novel. According to Novick, it is both functional and aesthetic, and the resulting mix is successful by the choreographer’s standards. “His music really says the period. It’s perfect, like Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Even if you’re a millennial, you’ve probably heard this music,” said Cunningham.

Ron Cunningham knows firsthand what it means to see a performance that is resonant and life-changing. He tells a story of buying a ticket to a performance as a young man and seeing the famous Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev perform; it was the first time he had ever seen a performance and it led to his career. He knows the value of reaching an audience and it leads him to make dances that create discussion and inform points of view. “I think if people trust their own instincts, whatever they see is perfect,” he said. “What’s happening on stage has no magic unless there’s someone watching it and they connect.”

Tickets for “The Great Gatsby” are $21-$72 and can be purchased at Ticket Center Stage 937. 228.3630 or online at www.DaytonPerformingArts.org. Before each performance Karen Russo Burke will hold a pre-performance talk, “The First Step” 45 minutes before curtain in the Burnell Roberts Room, 126 N. Main St. next door to the Victoria Theatre. A Q&A with dancers, “Behind the Ballet” will take place immediately following each performance. Both are free to all ticket holders.

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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