Eugene Ballet preview: Dancing Gatsby

Company and OrchestraNext premiere original works set to music of Marsalis and Grieg


When Eugene Ballet Artistic Director Toni Pimble decided to stage a dance version of The Great Gatsby, she didn’t realize just how challenging it would be. First, she had to replace the version she’d hoped to stage with a new one she had to create from scratch. Then she had to find music that both summoned the Jazz Age setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and worked with 21st century choreography and audiences. Then she had to figure out how to avoid asphyxiating her audience.

The Great Gatsby. Photo: Eugene Ballet.

Beth Maslinoff, Mitch Gill, Danielle Tolmie, Mark Tucker, Victoria Harvey appear in ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Photo: Eugene Ballet.

When Gatsby opens April 9, it will have original choreography by Pimble herself, a score by of Wynton Marsalis (performed by OrchestraNext, Brian McWhorter conducting) that was written for an entirely different show, and a spiffy new set that doesn’t poison the air in Eugene’s Hult Center.

Page to Stage

When Pimble discovered the prohibitive cost of bringing renowned, recently retired Washington Ballet artistic director and choreographer Septime Webre‘s production of Gatsby to the Hult Center stage, she decided to create a completely new work herself.

“The first task was to figure out how to tell the story through dance in a way that will be easily understandable to an audience,” she told ArtsWatch in an email. “Flashbacks are not easy to do in this instance and so the story progresses by selecting scenes that distill the essence of the actions and feelings of the main characters Gatsby, the Buchanans, Nick Carraway, the Wilsons and Jordan Baker. This is not a literal retelling of the story in dance form. More, it is an impression of scenes from the book expressed through dance.”

“Of course,” she adds, this is a story that “has plenty of dance potential considering all the innovative and ‘risqué’ dances that were being embraced in the 1920s, such as the Charleston, tango and shimmy. Contemporary ballet is the style that I am using predominantly to express each scene. Certainly there will be references to those dances of the 1920s.”

1920’s car kit. Photo: Eugene Ballet.

1920’s car kit. Photo: Eugene Ballet.

The next big challenge popped up in designing the set. Cars play a major part in the story, so EBC technical director Barry Rogers found a 1920s car kit online. These kits can be mounted over a small modern car. But driving a nearly century old gas guzzler across the Hult stage would spew enough carbon monoxide to suffocate the dancers, not to mention nearby audience members. “With some redesign and the purchase of a wheelchair electric motor,” Pimble wrote, “Barry has been able to create a realistic period car which we can “drive” and maneuver on stage without asphyxiating the dancers and audience!”

Repurposing Marsalis’s Music 

The Great Gatsby has been turned into films, dances, even an opera (by American composer John Harbison) before, and anyone staging it must confront Pimble’s next challenge: Like the costuming and stage sets based on the fashions of the 1920s, the music needed to evoke a sense of that time period, without being literal. But “after many hours listening to music of the period, I didn’t hear music that I felt would propel the story forward,” Pimble explains. She turned to trumpeter and University of Oregon music professor Brian McWhorter, who founded and conducts OrchestraNext. (See my ArtsWatch story, OrchestraNext and Eugene Ballet: Creating The Total Dance Experience.) The score McWhorter and Pimble assembled for The Great Gatsby largely came from Marsalis’s music for two ballets, Jump Start — The Mastery of Melancholy and Jazz: 6 1/2 Syncopated Movements,  choreographed by Twyla Tharp and Peter Martins in the late 1990s. Pimble “loved their inventiveness, complexity and strong rhythms. I worked on how I might assemble the individual pieces to tell our story,” she says.

“In the novel, Fitzgerald references four songs with iconic styles for the 1920s and we used those styles as a starting point,” McWhorter recalls. “When we heard Wynton’s music, we knew we had it; his music is deeply rooted in the tradition while sounding incredibly modern. While they weren’t originally intended for a narrative structure, Wynton liked the idea and was excited that we wanted to use it for this story.”

But Marsalis’s music posed still another challenge: he’s one of the greatest living jazz musicians, and even though most of the score is written out, “There are quite a few sections in which the solo instrument is improvising,” Pimble says. “However, my principal dancers are all experienced artists who have worked with contemporary improvisational music so, as long as the number of bars remain the same, it will be an exciting ‘in the moment’ collaboration.”

Reed Souther, Danielle Tolmie in Eugene Ballet's 'The Great Gatsby.' Photo: Eugene Ballet.

Reed Souther, Danielle Tolmie in Eugene Ballet’s ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Photo: Eugene Ballet.

Like Pimble, Rogers, and the dancers, McWhorter faced his own challenge. OrchestraNext is a symphony-sized training orchestra — but Marsalis scored his music for a big band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and, he told McWhorter, hasn’t been performed by any other group, so “we’ll be using the same configuration,” McWhorter says. “We have a tremendously talented roster too,” including some of the UO’s top faculty players and veteran Eugene jazz masters: trumpeters McWhorter, Tony Glausi, Aaron Kahn, and Mark Gould (former principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera), John Moak and Matt Hettwer, trombonists, UO prof and former eighth blackbird flutist Molly Barth, saxophonists Idit Shner, Steve Owen, Joe Manis and  Jesse Cloninger, rhythm section Torrey Newhart, Tyler Abbott and Jason Palmer.

New Look

While EBC finally solved Gatsby’s many challenges, the company faced one more: what work to pair with it on the program? Pimble assigned that task to EBC dancer/choreographer Suzanne Haag — her first major choreographic creation and first dance for EBC

Because Gatsby is such a narrative piece, with full sets, all the EBC dancers, and elaborate costumes, Hagg wanted to create a complementary dance to open the program. Set to the 19th century classical music of Edvard Grieg, her abstract, non-narrative Look explores current trends in human interaction with a blend of contemporary and classical movement influenced by the choreographer’s slight obsession with people watching.

“I always like to watch people and wonder what they are thinking, who they are, and notice how they walk,” Hagg notes in an email interview. “Recently I feel that no one is thinking anything, everyone is just staring at their phones completely unaware of the outside world and the people they are with. Intimate relationships happen across a screen and not face to face.”  Her choreography for ten dancers is rooted in classical ballet but definitely influenced by pedestrian movements.

Suzanne Hagg (l) rehearses Eugene Ballet dancers for 'Look." Photo: Antonio Anacan.

Suzanne Hagg (l) rehearses Eugene Ballet dancers for ‘Look.’ Photo: Antonio Anacan.

“During the first movement, nine of the dancers are blindfolded and one woman is not (the amazing Kaori Fukui),” Hagg explains. “To me, she represents compassion or hope, but she too struggles with the inability to see everyone. The blindfolds are gradually removed during the second movement. I wanted to resolve my piece in a positive way, the music for this movement is much more joyful…and I’m an optimist.”

Haag had wanted to use Grieg’s String Quartet #1 in G Minor even before Pimble assigned her to create Look. “Maybe I was drawn to the music because of my Scandinavian side, but I really love the varied themes.” She has selected the first and fourth movements, which at times are dark and dramatic, or tender or joyous.

The dance’s title, Look, she says, can be “a command, or a warning, or a gentle reminder to truly look at the loved ones in your life.”

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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One Response.

  1. Angela says:

    Eugene Ballet’s directors just need to retire their choreography is just stale and boring now. Ballet Fantastique is putting together better shows than this tired choreography.

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