How many choreographers will it take to light up an Ellington celebration? At the New York City Ballet, three: Robert La Fosse for ballet cred, Susan Stroman for showbiz glitz, and Garth Fagan for modern jazz inflection. The genre hopping makes sense in a celebration of the Dukecentenary; he did call his music “beyond category.” In an unprecedented nod to his eclecticism, the choreographers will share the stage with Wynton Marsalis’s Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. They’ll explore everything from the myriad rhythms of “Ad Lib on Nippon” to the supple textures of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” June 3, 4, 5, and 8.
Jazz’s aleatory spirit can clash with the regimented rituals of dance. When Ellington and Alvin Ailey collaborated on The River, the maestro’s characteristic last-minute arrangements surely kept the dancers in turmoil. But how can a care fully rehearsed ballet retain the spontaneity of a great Johnny Hodges solo? Stroman is excited by the challenge of making the dancing new. “In this particular evening, everything will be set,” she says. “Still, in the creation there is improvisation, feeding off a dancer’s technique. I’ll naturally turn to the left because I’m a left turner—and the dancer may say, ‘I can do that better from the right.”‘
Because of their physical flexibility, NYCB dancers may have an easier time swinging than many classical musicians. Garth Fagan will make sure the dancers, even if they wear toe shoes, internalize Duke’s syncopated rhythms. “Jazz com posers can finish a piece when they hit the bandstand,” says Fagan. “But dancers need to rehearse to hold a balance and get into a glissade or a leap. With bodies flying through the air, you have to rehearse.” But Fagan, Stroman, and La Fosse will push those bodies outward and upward, until they ascend to what Fagan calls “a pent house good time.” Stroman, meanwhile, is confident that, with Marsalis’s big band out of the pit, the dancers and musicians will find a way to communicate: “They’re gonna feel each other’s breath.”