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The Orpheus Suite
David Bintley on The Orpheus Suite:
The Orpheus Suite completes my trilogy of works inspired by the life and music of Duke Ellington. The idea for a ballet telling the story of Orpheus by drawing parallels with Ellington's life and set against the darker side of the jazz experience, came to me a number of years ago.
In the mid 1930s, Ellington's fame was such that he and his orchestra had become a household name the length and breadth of the USA. In 1936 the band undertook a tour of the southern states and in order to provide both safety and convenience (as hotels and restaurants there were still racially segregated), the band travelled in its own deluxe Pullman railroad train.
The tour was a roaring success, prompting one native of Carolina to declare, 'Duke, if you were a white man you'd be a great composer'. A police presence was still required at the band's concerts however as several members had been threatened with beatings. It was the story of this tour, and the irony of an audience that loved the band's music, but hated their colour, that first made me equate Ellington with Orpheus, the Thracian poet whose music was so powerful and bewitching it could not only move stone and charm wild beasts, but even calm the denizens of Hades, the land of the dead.
From its very beginnings in the work songs of the slave plantations of the southern states, jazz has co-existed with misery and deprivation. The abuse of the Afro-American throughout history has given birth to this, the only true American art form. But the battle to win recognition for this art and its people resulted in many casualties. Jazz existed in a a twilight world of crime, drugs and prostitution, and many musicians fell prey to the despair which seemed to dog their lives despite the adulation of millions.
Ellington was no stranger to this world, but managed to steer his band through the roughest of waters for over 40 years. By the end of his life, a period which had seen a transformation in jazz and the lives of the black American, Ellington had assumed legendary status as the legitimiser of his art and one of America's greatest composers, in whatever genre.
By his own account however, Ellington's greatest musical achievement was the second of his Sacred Concerts. Written towards the end of his life, it is a work in praise of God written for a combination of band with chorus and soloists; it has received numerous performances in some of the world's greatest cathedrals. Ellington died of lung cancer shortly after its composition, but he left an unparalleled musical legacy which still influences, informs and delights into the 21st century.
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'I really liked this piece, it's full of contrast; it's got a bit of love, a bit of sex, and a bit of horribleness and danger, but all goes along very smoothly. I remember this being very different from the rehearsals when we got it on stage. We're quite used to it being one way with a piano or a CD of a recording, and expect it to be different with the orchestra - you’re going to hear different things, or not hear things at all - but with Jazz, with people improvising sections, it's something else! And then when they did it in Sadler's Wells after the run in Birmingham, it sounded completely different again - It must have been quite difficult for the dancers but thankfully David had choreographed it on the count rather than the tune, which was just as well!'
BRB Ballet Master
'I really enjoyed Orpheus, the opening, especially is fantastic. I wasn't involved in the choreographic process - it wasn't one I worked on - so I saw it as a finished piece, as an audience member, and it was really great. The dancers love doing it as well, as it's less strict: we emphasise other things like the energy, and the dynamics rather than being purely classical.'
Click on the names for individual biographies
Music Colin Towns
Choreography David Bintley
Sets and lighting Steve Scott
Costumes Kandis Cook
Sponsored (2004) by the de Valois Circle
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