Anyone who saw the Jazz Dance Workshop at the Quincy House Jazz concert will be stunned at how much the dancers have improved for the Grant-in-Aid show. The current show is as good as any I have seen at Harvard. Color, humor, drama, and sophistication are all combined into exciting jazz dance interpretations of Gershwin's An American in Paris, John Lewis's The Comedy, and Gottschalt's and Key's Woodland Revelry.
George Gershwin's An American in Paris was written as a ballet. This would normally mean that the basis of the choreography is at least outlined by the original production. But Robert Walsh has shown his creativity by constructing an entirely new story line and thereby bringing a fresh view to the music. The American is a Cliffie-cum-green book-bag, who is in Paris for the summer. She has an affair with a Negro painter; they separate, reunite, travel around France, and she leaves at the end of the summer.
There are some parts of the Gershwin score--such as the unmistakable street scenes with taxi honks and running vibes riffs--which had to be interpreted as they were originally conceived. But other parts were completely reinterpreted. For example, Gershwin intended the American blues in the middle of the piece to represent nostalgia for home: in Walsh's plot it represents the Cliffie's sadness during her temporary separation from the painter. Later, the bright French can-can music becomes travelling music for the couple's holiday before she laves. By changing the implications of the music, Walsh adds fresh meaning to the music itself.
Interpretive sophistication can be seen in apparent relationships between musical lines and the actions of characters. In the blues section, for example, three girls representing the river Seine seemed to be moving with the counter-theme in the lower brasses and woodwinds, while the Cliffie danced to the melody line.
The dancing was also interestingly representational. When the girl first gets to Paris and attempts to adjust to her new environment, she is imitating the motions of people in street scenes and of the painter. But before she has left, she has affected as well as adjusted to a new community, for the others are imitating her. And probably the most beautiful part of the whole show is the representation of the love affair, and its culmination, in an unmistakable, yet tasteful manner.
Perhaps the most impressive single performance of the production was Marietta Stevenson's portrayal of the girl. Miss Stevenson is a fine dancer and actress. But most important, she seems to radiate personality from the stage. Ron Porter, the painter, was as expressive here as he was skillful and facile in the other two numbers.
Ann Mihelich and Carol Goodman are to be praised here, and in the other two pieces, for the very colorful costumes.
The only flaw was the chorus. Most of them simply were not very good dancers. And their facial expressions were ludicrous. Lack of blank expressions, I am told, is one of the factors that distinguish jazz dancing from modern dancing. In The Comedy, facial expression was ably used as a means of communication. But in an American in Paris the pasted on smiles of most of the dancers made them look like a night club chorus line. The chorus was ably used, however, in the travel and farewell scenes, where they convincingly represented inanimate objects, like trains and waves.
The entire cast was more solid in John Lewis's The Comedy, which was overall the best of the three pieces. The Comedy was the closest thing to "Jazz," both musically and choreographically influ-performance. John Lewis's music is heavily influenced by the Jazz style he must use in the Modern Jazz Quartet. The Comedy depicts characters from the Commedia dell'Arte, an improvisational type of popular drama which Lewis believes was to the late seventeenth century as jazz is to the middle twentieth. The ballet was first performed under Lewis's baton in Paris.
The Jazz Dance Workshop interpretation--the first in America--centers around three clowns (two Harlequins and Columbine) making fun of a religious procession and of each other. Interspersed, in the scenes, is a brief but touching affair between the Cantatrice--a prop girl who pretends to perform when no one is looking--and the Censor from the religious procession.
Eric Lessinger and Ellen Miller gave moving interpretations of this affair, but the really impressive characters in this piece were the clowns. Played by Susan Patterson, Bob Walsh, and Ron Porter, they were extraordinary funny. Susan Patterson's tremendous talent as a comedienne almost detracted attention from her equally impressive dancing abilities.
Most significantly The Comedy was the only piece in which there was improvisation. The three clowns would dance together to a theme, and when Lewis took improvisational choruses on the piano, an individual dancer also improvised, with the other two comping a pattern behind. The audience applauded the improvisations the way they would the musical improvisations the way they would the musical improvisations of a chorus at a jazz concert.
Woodland Revelry, as a closing piece, was a bit of an anti-climax. It lacked the brilliant individual performances of the leads in American in Paris and the general solidness of The Comedy. It was nevertheless a delightfully funny piece. The music is an orchestral arrangement by Kay of Gottschalk's late nineteenth century minstrel songs.
On the stage, a large group of animals perform for the King and Queen of the forest. So much goes on that it would be impossible to summarize it, except to say that most of the audience is laughing most of the time. Richard Kimmel and Eric Lessinger are hilarious foxes, exceeded in humor only by a monster which later divides into three very lovely butterflies.
The high level of enthusiasm and competence in this Grant-in-Aid show point to a hopeful future for jazz dance in the University. The man to watch most closely is Ron Porter. A freshman, he put in a sterling performances in all three numbers, and is likely to dominate Harvard dancing for the next three years.