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The Orpheus Suite
An introduction to Ellington
David Bintley discusses the appeal of the jazz legend
Read about the legend of Orpheus
Read reviews of previous performances
Journalist Duncan Heining talks to the big band leader and composer of The Orpheus Suite
David Bintley on the attraction of jazz
The creator of Take Five talks about his love of jazz
See shots from the Company studios
An overview of the ballet
Read quotes from reviews of previous performances
Meet the characters portrayed in the ballet
Geoffrey Smith looks at Duke Ellington's relationship with dance
Duke Ellington played for dancers all his life. In his native Washington DC he was first attracted to music by the strutting strains of ragtime, with its cakewalking babies and virtuoso pianists. The culture inspired the young Ellington's first composition, 'Soda Fountain Rag', and its success in local circles encouraged him to expand his horizons. He was soon leading bands at society parties in wealthy Washington suburbs, charming his clientele with his elegant manner and infectious tunes.
In 1923, he and his Washingtonians went to New York, where they quickly became known as 'the hottest band this side of the equator', exciting the patrons of late-night clubs. They had the same effect on tour: a newspaper declared, 'The Washingtonians have set New England dance-crazy'.
In 1927 Ellington's reputation made a quantum leap as the band, now under his own name, took up residence at Harlem's famous Cotton Club. During his four-year stay, Ellington supplied torrid, atmospheric 'jungle music' for exotic stage shows and free-wheeling choreography. Though the entertainment the Cotton Club gave its whites-only audiences may have been outlandishly racist, the quality and originality of Ellingtonšs work was hailed as unique, soon leading him to Hollywood and his first European tour. After that, he never looked back.
Throughout a long and hugely productive career, Ellington composed music of all sorts for all manner of occasions and venues, from ballrooms and theatres to concert halls and cathedrals. But even his most ambitious extended works still reveal the principle he expressed in 1931: 'When I'm making my arrangements or composing something new, I try to think of something that will make my hearers feel like dancing'. For instance, his 1944 Perfume Suite is very grand, but its best moment is a charming miniature, 'Dancers in Love', which Ellington described as 'a stomp for beginners'. The climax of his first Concert of Sacred Music, from 1965, is a scintillating tap feature, 'David Danced before the Lord', and one of his last major works, before his death in 1974, was a full-length ballet, The River, commissioned by the American Ballet Theatre.
Geoffrey Smith is a writer and broadcaster; he presents Radio 3's Jazz Record Requests and writes on music for Country Life and on music and the arts generally for The Economist.
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