Dancing Gershwin

January 14, 2012

One of the first pleasures of Strictly Gershwin at the Coliseum (it was someone’s birthday treat) was seeing – as the curtain rose – that the orchestra has been lifted out the pit and placed across the back of the stage. It was, immediately, a reminder of the big bands of the Jazz Age, of which Gershwin was unaguably the greatest composer.

Do ballet and jazz mix? The answer is: mostly. Ballet and show dancing are very different, as Darcy Bussell was reminded when she set out recently to recreate some of the great dances of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The first is straight limbs and square ends, the second is more hips and bends. The dancer’s centre of gravity is in a different place.

The ballet sequences which worked best were the ones which allowed ballet to do what it does best – a a visual and physical interpretation of a piece of music. An American in Paris was all colour and movement, a tale of love found, lost and found again. Rhapsody in Blue was more stylised, more formal (as seen in the photograph at the top of this post), but also added a dimension to the music. A moment’s digression here: Gershwin kept procrastinating over writing the piece, until the bandleader Paul Whiteman, for whom it was being written, simply announced the concert at which it would premiere, forcing Gershwin to get on and finish it.

Some of the songs didn’t respond so well to treatment. The story of The Man I Love or Someone To Watch Over Me is all in the lyric, so dancing it as well added little. On the other hand, the more open lyric of Summertime made for a fine interpretation.

The company was augmented by a couple of champion ballroom dancers, whose tango, improbably to It Ain’t Necessarily So, was one of the highlights of the show. But the warmest applause was for the tap dancers. I don’t know if it’s because tap dancing came of age at the same time as jazz, and remains one of America’s great contributions to dance, but when they were on the energy levels in the theatre increased decisively.

But back to the orchestra. There’s nothing quite like a 30-piece big band playing jazz standards, and the programme reveals that – as with the dancers – the ENO orchestra was augmented by jazz specialists, who led each of the horn sections. You could hear it as they traded dirty notes in some of the numbers, which reminded me of lines from Carl Sandburg‘s fine poem, Jazz Fantasia:

Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome treetops,
moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a
racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop, bang-bang!
you jazzmen…

Kudos, by the way, to the ENO Box Office. There was a problem with my tickets, which may have been my fault, and they swapped them in an instant for tickets elsewhere which had just as good a view, and without any of the eye-rolling or customer blaming you sometimes get in such circumstances.

The picture at the top comes via Georgina Butler’s blog, and is used with thanks.

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