Tag Archives: scott joplin

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:

GraHam it up

7 Nov

Boy did I have a busy week!  I attended two very different dance shows and wrote reviews for SeattleDances, which I encourage you to read…because if I didn’t then that would mean I had no faith in my own writing (and I’m pretty sure I’m well on my way to having it).  The first of those reviews was of the Martha Graham Dance Company, of which I have a few “funny me” thoughts I would like to share (link for the entire review at SeattleDances).

Prior to the show, my experiences with Martha Graham were very basic, merely scratching the surface by means of a couple of dance history and technique classes.  I watched Lamentation and Night Journey on film and once had a teacher who taught some morsels of Graham technique in an intermediate modern class, like contractions, triplets…that sort of thing.  So I had some ideas going in as to what to expect, but at the same time my perspective on dance has broadened so much over the past couple of years I knew my reaction to Graham now and especially live, would differ greatly.  This is something I love about being a patron of the arts and balletomane (or in this case, modernomane?)…we’re constantly reevaluating ourselves and get a real sense of how we’ve changed and the progress we’ve made in expanding our horizons.  Fortune cookie wisdom aside, it’s just plain neat.

Back when I was fresh to dance I think my reaction to Graham was unsure and a bit confused and fascinated at the same time.  While watching her company in action the other day, I felt more in tune with how powerful her choreography is.  It was interesting to see the influences upon her and those she passed on, not only upon the choreographers who created the Lamentation Variations, but I even found myself thinking about seeing her in other choreographers’ work (like Balanchine!).  However, speaking of Lamentation Variations, one of said variations was choreographed by dance artist, Richard Move.  When I read his name in the program, I knew exactly where I had seen his name before and almost refused to believe that he and the name in my memory are in fact the same person, but when artistic director Janet Eilber mentioned that Graham had a fantastic sense of humor, I realized it was possible that the idea of not taking oneself too seriously is also a part of her legacy (more on this later).  As a matter of fact, Richard Move is apparently quite the well-known Martha Graham impersonator, to the extent that lawyers of the company even sent him cease and desist letters…but this is not how I had heard of him.  It just so happens that his choreography has been posted in this blog before, as he did the choreography for one of my favorite movies, Strangers with Candy, starring Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello.  Take a gander:

(I’m not going to bother explaining the premises of the film…you really just have to see it.  Would “yes, she’s a forty-something ex-junkie, wearing a googly eye on her forehead, a fat suit, and they made a battery powered by poop for a state science fair in a racist, quasi-Indonesian presentation” make sense to you?  I didn’t think so)

It’s true…the same guy that did one of the Lamentation Variations, as part of a tribute to mother of modern dance Martha Graham, a piece that was performed on the anniversary of 9/11, also choreographed the above.  Talk about the odd jobs!

However, as I said, Graham actually did have a wonderful sense of humor and wasn’t afraid to mock her own work.  Needless to say, her piece Maple Leaf Rag was my favorite of the evening is now one of my favorite dances of all time.  She revealed a side of herself in that piece that no one would expect, but like Move (or rather the other way around), people are full of surprises and despite our natural tendencies or signature characteristics, everybody experiences a full spectrum of emotion; Graham doing something lighthearted and comical shouldn’t come as a surprise.  What I loved most about this piece was that I could really see myself in it—not that I could do all the movements, mind you—but I actually listen to Scott Joplin rags on my iPod all the time, and love to just be a dancing fool when they come on.  I already described some of the funnier moments in my review, like the crawling along the bar or the woman who does the same phrase across the stage over and over…it’s hard to describe what exactly she was doing not because the movement was complicated but because words truly can’t capture the full effect.  Luckily, there is some footage of Maple Leaf Rag on YouTube, as a part of an interview with Blakeley White-McGuire, who also danced the lead when I saw it.  You can see the specific dancer I’m talking about at 0:40 and 3:50, drifting across the stage like some obtuse jellyfish.

Now imagine her doing that a few more times for good measure and you can begin to understand the humor.  Unfortunately, there is no commercial recording of Maple Leaf Rag available which is a shame because the piece needs to be seen in its entirety needs to be believed (as do the abs of some of the dancers…EGADS!  Let it be known that the Martha Graham Dance Company has some of the most ripped dancers I’ve ever seen in my entire life!).

Well, that just about wraps it up for some insights on Graham, YouDanceFunny style…so I shall give a little prelude as to what’s to come in the near to immediate future.  I’m going to unwisely devote most entries this month to Swan Lake.  First of all (in case you didn’t know), I’ve never actually watched Swan Lake in full (any production), though I have seen my fair share of Black Swan pas de deux, like you do.  Second, I need to know why women in particular are nuttercrackers for this ballet, so that’s my angle in all of this research…extracting the “feminine mystique” by diving head first into the lake of swans.  So I’ve basically hoarded all of the Swan Lake DVDs the library had to offer, might be able to see a few more online and I am ready to bunker down and get to business.  There may be an unrelated post here and there (Pacific Northwest Ballet is doing their run of their Twyla Tharp program and my ticket is for this weekend so a review is to be expected!) but November shall be indeed Swan Lake month.  I’m actually thinking this is a horrible idea, but it’s too late—promises have been made and discipline must be exercised.  Come December, I better have earned my balletomane stripes for taking this project on.