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The history of Elite Syncopations

What's on

South-West tour spring 2008

Everyman Theatre
29 - 30 April 2008
The Lighthouse
2 - 3 May 2008
Northcott Theatre
6 - 7 May 2008
Hall for Cornwall
9 - 10 May 2008

Click here for a full diary of performances and links for how to book.

Full performance diary

Click here for performance listings.

Elite Syncopations: a history

John Percival examines the creation and success of the ballet

Kenneth MacMillan was not having a great time during most of the 1970s. He found that being director of The Royal Ballet, a post he held from 1970 to 1977, was not the happiest experience: too time consuming and subject to much criticism, especially given that radical changes had been made as he took over. Many of the works he made then, too, were not among his best.

But the year 1974 was an exception; within a few months he premiered two of his most popular ballets. Manon, his three-act adaptation of the Abbé Prévost's famous 18th-century story, has never since been long out of the Covent Garden programmes and has been mounted also by leading companies in Houston, New York, Paris, St Petersburg, Stockholm and Toronto. Rape, seduction, robbery and violent death provide its action; a brothel and a prison camp are among its locations.

Elite Syncopations, which followed soon afterwards, could hardly have been more different. An episodic work in one act, it was so light hearted as to become at times positively flippant in its humour. Also, it is unusual among MacMillan's ballets in providing display numbers for a large group of soloists; generally he prefers to concentrate on a small handful of leading characters.

The pattern of Elite Syncopations echoes that of his first professional ballet, Stravinsky's Danses concertantes, in having its dancers sit around the stage watching while others of their number do solos, duets or small group entries. However, the two works look very different because Danses concertantes was closed in by its décor, and set in an undefined time and place, whereas Elite Syncopations was presented on a big open space, extending right to the back wall of the stage, but was given elaborately decorated costumes designed by Ian Spurling to suggest, in a very stylised way not in the least realistic ­the era of Scott Joplin, whose ragtime moods inspired the ballet.

Ragtime music, after years of neglect when it was superseded by the next new wave, jazz, had suddenly become popular, thanks to concerts by the pianist Joshua Rifkin and also its use in the film The Sting. In consequence, quite a few choreographers in the early 1970s turned to Joplin and his rivals, usually in orchestrated versions of original piano scores. The gifted and highly individual James Waring in New York may have been the first, with Eternity Bounce in 1973, but it was said that MacMillan thought of using Joplin some time before Elite Syncopations actually reached the stage in October 1974.

Be that as it may, British audiences had seen two other ballets with music by Joplin in the months immediately before MacMillan's.

One was Alfonso Catá's Ragtime, brought by the Frankfurt Ballet which he then directed. Next came a two-act Prodigal Son, with choreography by Barry Moreland for London Festival Ballet. So there was some feeling at the time that MacMillan was arriving at the tail of an overdone trend. However, nobody built much, even then, on some slight superficial resemblances ­the fact, for instance, that both Moreland and MacMillan introduced allusions to a dance competition. And Elite Syncopations turned out to be the only work of that ragtime group with staying power.

Its durability derived, I guess, largely from the pervading air of incorrigible cheerfulness, presented within an atmosphere so informal as to seem almost improvised. The idea of putting the 12-piece band and their pianist conductor on stage behind the dancing area, in costumes like those of the dancers, was a master stroke, enhancing the illusion of a New Orleans barrel house decades ago, perhaps during a Mardi Gras celebration.

That context could explain why the performers seem as jolly as the tinkling tunes that spark off the action. MacMillan used some of the company's best dancers to create the roles, not only with assured technique but strong personalities too, and he did not let them slack: plenty of vigour demanded from the men, lots of crispness from the women, and some rather tricky partnering too.

The ballet is not so difficult that graduating students from more than one ballet school haven't tackled it with success, but really it does gain from having dancers experienced enough to give convincing life to the roles. The twists and unlikely angles of a woman's solo, the bouncy power of a male ensemble, the slight hint of parody to sharpen up what might otherwise prove a too sentimental duet­ - those are qualities which the choreographer won from his original cast.

And it is the opportunity of finding their own equivalent of those which can make the ballet, 30 years on, rewarding as well as fun for today's dancers ­- and their audiences.



Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Elite Syncopations as part of the 2008 tour of the South-West. Click here for more information.
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