Levi, Hope and Pope Triple-Team Cole Porter

Charlotte Ballet_Javier de Frutos_ Elsa Canasta_ Singer Levi Kreis with cast_photo by Jeff Cravotta fix_1092-2585 (1)

Preview: Charlotte Ballet’s Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Over the past 20 years, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride have left an indelible mark on dance in Charlotte. Principal dancers when they worked together at New York City Ballet, the couple brought their invaluable experience with legendary choreographer George Balanchine to our own NC Dance Theatre, eventually re-branding the company as Charlotte Ballet.

When Knight Theater opened in 2009, their troupe became the resident company, and when Charlotte Ballet dedicated a stunning academy for dance at their new HQ on N. Tryon Street, their names were engraved on the building. Bonnefoux and McBride brought nationwide recognition to the Queen City with repeat performances by Charlotte Ballet at the Kennedy Center in DC, where McBride was decorated with Kennedy Center Honors at their 2014 gala.

Now that Bonnefoux has retired, Hope Muir is the new artistic director as Charlotte Ballet launches their 2017-18 season this week with Fall Works at the Knight, October 19-21 at 7:30, plus a 2pm matinee on October 21. If you look at the dance card, you’ll see Muir signaling her intentions loud and clear: honoring the past while venturing forth in bold new directions.

Bonnefoux and McBride will both be on the dancers’ minds as the company performs Balanchine’s seminal Apollo for the first time since 2010. Bonnefoux was one of the City Ballet principals that Balanchine chose to dance the title role, and McBride, still associate artistic director at Charlotte Ballet after her husband’s retirement, is staging it once again.

Apollo also makes sense because it’s referenced in Elsa Canasta by Javier de Frutos, the first major work that Muir is premiering in Charlotte. It’s personal for her. Muir was one of the dancers onstage in London with Rambert Dance Company when the piece was first performed in 2003. And when Elsa was recently restaged – in altered form – at Scottish Ballet in 2015, Muir was serving as assistant artistic director until Charlotte Ballet came calling.

There are new wrinkles for the Charlotte debut, too. Benjamin Pope has freshened his orchestrations, transposing keys and rearranging transitions, and for the first time, Pope will be conducting his own score live. Three Cole Porter songs are integral to the de Frutos scenario, “So In Love,” “Down In The Depths,” and “Ridin’ High.”

De Frutos had the Ethel Merman recording of “Ridin’ High” in mind when he conceived his choreography, so a female singer delivered the Porter songs at the London premiere. Not anymore. Levi Kreis will be the vocalist this time. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Kreis won the Tony Award in 2010 – as a sensational Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, replicating all The Killer’s piano pounding, stool kicking, mic straddling antics.

When he isn’t mimicking the iconic rocker, Kreis can do jazz.

Levi Kreis

“I personally love singing jazz,” Kreis says. “I thought it was a very exciting and bold move for Javier and the Charlotte Ballet to bring me forward for this part. There is no way for me to accurately express how fulfilling it is for me to wrap my voice around this material. I think most actors enjoy taking on roles that are outside the narrow box the industry tends to put us in.”

Kreis isn’t just coming to the Knight for a singing gig. There is acting for him to sink his teeth into as he interacts with the dancers. The lyrics Kreis sings are key elements of the scenario, and there is no mystery now about the role de Frutos is casting him in.

It’s the composer himself – Cole Porter. The back-story behind the choreography tells us how.

Back in the 1920s, when Porter would rent a villa in Venice, the Ballet Russes and its famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev were caught trying to skip out on their bill at a swank Venetian hotel. Jump out, actually, for they all rented ground-floor and second-floor rooms so they could jump out together on cue.

Didn’t work this time, and Porter bailed them all out – with one condition, that they give a private performance in the villa’s ballroom for their benefactor and select friends. Then the composer ventured further, thinking that this might be a chance to be taken seriously in the symphonic realm. He presented Diaghilev with a brand new ballet score, “Within the Quota,” groundbreaking because it fused classical music with jazz, and it was still four months before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue saw the light.

The Russian didn’t see it as an offer he couldn’t refuse. Here’s how de Frutos summed it up, writing to Kreis:

“And famously Diaghilev said, ‘Thank you! But I don’t like jazz!’ So, this is the back story of Elsa Canasta. The singer is sort of a modern day Cole Porter. Gifted in so many ways and musically a triple threat as a singer, songwriter and lyricist.”

As the title implies, evoking the canasta parties thrown by famed hostess Elsa Maxwell (who indeed lured Porter and other celebs to the Lido in Venice), de Frutos took an unexpected path in bringing his back-story to life. Switching from an Ethel Merman vocalist to a Cole Porter persona takes us emphatically back on course. Getting a Broadway star to take on the role has Muir enthused as she takes charge at Charlotte Ballet.

“Each new cast member brings with them a new focus to the narrative of the ballet,” Muir was saying last week. “Levi brings a freshness and new perspective that we are still negotiating in the rehearsal process. His input as a cast member is essential to the core of the piece.”

So is “Within the Quota,” of course. But the original orchestral score has remained elusive. De Frutos tells us that the jazz ballet was staged by a less prestigious company than Diaghilev’s, but only a piano score survived with few details on tempo. Pope was called upon to do the detective work – and for his arranging skills, since Rambert Dance needed a trim score that could play in London and on tour.

Pope tracked down the original manuscript a long way from Venice, in the archives at Yale University, Porter’s alma mater.

“I worked directly from printouts of the microfiche,” says Pope, recalling the thrill. “Porter wrote for piano, and if he needed more notes than could be comfortably written on one piano part, he’d add another! So some pages had three or four pianos, and the next page it would drop back to one piano, then to two, and so on. I was fascinated by his musical language, quasi-minimalist but way before its time, mixed with Gershwin-meets-Darius Milhaud.”

The current score, marked “Charlotte Ballet 2017” on the front page of the sheet music, will feature piano, string quartet, two woodwinds, three brass, and percussion. Those woodwind players need to be fluent on three instruments apiece, and the percussionist needs to play at least two different pairs of instruments simultaneously at different points. The Merman recording of “Ridin’ High” – or just the Porter lyric – hints at what we’ll be hearing. And when.

Pope is obviously excited about conducting his score for the first time, but other firsts factor in – collaborating with the musicians of the Charlotte-based Jazz Arts Initiative, and interacting with the dancers. Each live performance is unique, after all, so the dancers will feel the music slightly differently each time they perform.

But for the orchestrator who has undoubtedly seen this dance, it’s the drama – and what Kreis brings to it – that will be most revelatory.

“Each singer has brought something of themselves to the production,” says Pope.  “The role, though, has grown in dramatic importance, and Javier always wanted it to be more integral to the drama, rather than just someone singing songs on stage while dancers dance. Levi’s voice, and his acting and physicality will bring a totally different perspective to this piece.   Charlotte really does have its own Elsa Canasta.”

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