Jazz at New York City Ballet

By McDonagh, Don | Dance Magazine, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Jazz at New York City Ballet


McDonagh, Don, Dance Magazine


If asked, few ballet habitues would immediately associate jazz with classical ballet, but twentieth-century ballet choreographers have regularly found its fascinatin' rhythms a seductive prod to movement inventiveness. Jazz was born on the wrong side of the tracks in the demimonde, red-light districts of American cities during the naughty nineties. About four centuries earlier, ballet had grown up in the propriety-conscious palaces of kings, where manners dictated all. Yet classical ballet choreographers and composers have been interested in and influenced by jazz rhythms and phrasing from the time the sassy counterculture music muscled its way into mainstream consciousness.

New York City Ballet during its fiftieth-anniversary celebration is perfectly comfortable presenting a new full-evening production of Swan Lake, as well as ballets to the music of the late Duke Ellington and of the very much present Wynton Marsalis. One has to look no farther than George Balanchine, the company's founding choreographer, to see why.

For him, the pretext for dancing was music, and some of that music was jazz or jazz-influenced. Among the scores by contemporary composers he worked with were Richard Rodgers's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1936), Igor Stravinsky's Ragtime for 11 Instruments twice (1960 and 1966), Morton Gould's Derivations for Clarinet and Jazz Band (1964's Clarinade), Hershy Kay's score using Gershwin songs, entitled Who Cares? (1970), Rolf Liebermann's Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra (1971), and Roger Kellaway's gloss on themes by Stan Applebaum and Sid Woloshin entitled PAMTGG (1971), based on the music for a television commercial.

The last mentioned was an unpronounceable acronym for "Pan Am Makes The Going Great." It was hoped that the airline would be so pleased it would offer NYCB dancers complimentary roundtrip tickets to make a filming date in Germany. The company didn't do so; the film sessions were a disappointment bordering on a disaster (flooring was unsprung and editting was frenetic); and the ballet' was an embarrassment--TV jingles definitely did not inspire Balanchine's best efforts.

The far superior popular music of Rodgers and Gershwin did. Rodgers's On Your Toes had offered Balanchine his fast opportunity to work on a Broadway musical comedy; another first for Broadway was his use of the term choreographer to describe himself. Slaughter, considerably expanded for an NYCB 1968 gala program, found its way comfortably into the company's regular repertory, as did the glittering Who Cares? For the most part, Balanchine's other efforts remained pieces d'occasion that departed with their occasions.

Other choreographers associated with NYCB have had great success with jazz or jazz-influenced scores. Jerome Robbins's Interplay to Gould's American Concertette, originally done for Billy Rose's 1945 Concert Varieties, has had a long life with the company. …

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