The Right Time for Ragtime and Never the Wrong Time

28 Feb

I had a “moment”—I could have sworn I wrote an entry about Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, and the reality is I have not.  I know I watched it maybe a week or so ago, but apparently managed to be so scatterbrained that I convinced myself of a purported entry’s existence.  Those who laud the power of the mind and mental imagery aren’t joking around…how many times have you woken up from a dream utterly confused as to how your hotel room in New York happens to look like your bedroom, and once you realize it is indeed your own bed, how you got from New York to Seattle so quickly?  Needless to say, rational thinking and good judgment have never been my strengths first thing in the morning.  If there’s ever a time to make an attempt at pulling the wool over my eyes (a feat that has a dismal success rate mind you) it’s in the wee morning hours…or rather, all morning hours.

The reason why I wanted to do a write up of Elite Syncopations is not unlike the reason MacMillan himself wanted to choreograph it.  Every now and then, every person needs a good laugh and despite the psychological depth of MacMillan’s ballets, he has this one odd bauble in Elite Syncopations.  Obviously, I adore humor in ballet and just because comedy doesn’t make us cry it doesn’t mean it’s any less moving than a tragedy.  Who’s to say that tears are more valuable than laughter?  In the same way we dissect the ways in which artists interpret emotional distress and heartbreak, I am equally (well, probably more) interested in the various ways choreographers have expressed humor in their dances.  I tend to think Ashton was the mastermind of comedy, but his work is funny in ways vastly different from MacMillan’s. Jiří Kylián is also quite the humorist and like MacMillan, even Martha Graham decided to engage her funny bone for one piece, mocking her own dance technique in her Maple Leaf Rag, a favorite of mine.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Graham and MacMillan turned to ragtime music by Scott Joplin…there’s something so infectiously cheery about a good rag that it’s virtually impossible to not tap your feet.  Sure, The Entertainer is the bane of every piano player’s existence in addition to being the perennial serenade of choice for ice cream trucks around the United States (though thankfully, not in Seattle, where we have the fabulous locally owned Molly Moon’s trucks and their truck exclusive ice cream sandwiches!), Joplin’s music never fails to put a smile on my face or put a bounce in my step.  One of the neat things about Elite Syncopations too is that it’s the type of piece that any audience member will have an easy time appreciating not just because of its comical nature but also because a lot of the music will sound familiar.  Even if audiences can’t name the rags MacMillan used (well, I got about half of them) the familiarity is a great way to establish connections between musicians, dancers and audience.  That relationship is strengthened by the fact that the ragtime band is actually visible on stage the entire time and the whole thing just screams comfort and approachability.  Too often I’ve heard people who have never experienced ballet say that they’re afraid that they “wouldn’t get it,” and I even used to be one of those people but with Elite Syncopations you get to throw all that nonsense out the window.

The costumes for Syncopations are out of this world.  I think they are best described as outfits Fraggles would wear to a dinner party in Wonderland (if you have to Google “fraggle,” I feel sorry for you…unless you’re not from the US and your country didn’t air Fraggle Rock, in which case it’s not your fault).  What I’m about to describe is going to sound like a nonsensical train wreck, but somehow the assemblage of checkered patterns, pinstripes, graphic designs, and even stars on the tucchus, in an explosion of both primary and neon colors you think would clash but manages to work for this piece.  What should be utterly offensive to the eyes is surprisingly not and as a spectator you get to a point where it doesn’t even occur to you how ridiculous the costumes are.  Designer Ian Spurling incorporates stylistic elements and some accessories from a number of vintage eras and the effect is at times dizzying (which I’m sure is intentional).  For example, there are two men’s costumes are fairly similar, with a pinstripe design except one is plain pinstripe and the other has additional bands around the knees that break the lines and you almost lose your sense of equilibrium.  I highly suggest a visit to The Ballet Bag’s post on the costumes of Elite Syncopations, for more detailed information.

What’s fascinating is that this piece could easily go the road of being too over the top, but somehow MacMillan manages to downplay the startling visual effects by finding subtleties in the choreography.  As silly as the characters are and as jolly as ragtime can be, the music is actually rather soothing and I think MacMillan made sure to emphasize that.  There’s a naturalness to it that evokes images of a pianist playing rags in the studio and ballet dancers (in what little free time they have) hamming it up and goofing around.  They use steps and vocabulary they know, like pirouettes and extensions but will throw in an off-kilter, bizarre looking move or do something that would make Petipa roll in his grave, just for the heck of it.  It’s the closest I think I’ve seen of ballet dancers literally playing and I know MacMillan just wanted to get some laughs but the amazing thing is he really succeeds in showing a different side of dancers with this piece, in a colorful, but tasteful manner.  It seems that even in something psychedelically silly, MacMillan still managed to capture the human spirit and show you people you know in your personal lives.

I have to say that in this performance (now available on DVD), Valeri Hristov turns in a most enjoyably smarmy performance (he appears as the first male solo, his unitard pained with a blue and white striped shirt, white vest, black and white striped pants with bands around the knees and a beige top hat) but the entire cast dances it exceptionally well so if you’re feeling blue like I was, find a giant cookie and sit yourself down to this pick me up:

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