“Tonight is about collaboration,” declared Charleston Ballet Theatre choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr as she took the stage with Charleston Jazz Orchestra producer Jack McCray to introduce The Ellington Experience. After years of casual discussion about collaborating, it wasn’t until last summer when McCray sent Bahr The Far East Suite by Duke Ellington that they found the musical vehicle on which to join forces. The fruits of their efforts — a 45-minute ballet to music performed by a seven-piece ensemble of elite CJO musicians — made its world premiere Saturday night to a sold-out house at the Charleston Music Hall.
“Tourist Point of View” opened the show with the full dance company swarming the stage, the women in neon color-blocked spandex dresses and the men in jeans, vests, and ties, an outfit reminiscent of the Chippendales uniform. Through a series of turns and leaps coordinating with the seemingly unpredictable rhythms of jazz, they lifted prop suitcases above their heads, tossed them back and forth, and placed them down on the stage to be jumped over or posed with. Like the song, the dance was appropriately frantic and scattered, but corny hand gestures and poses interspersed throughout the choreography came across as artificial.
On stage beside the dancers, the CJO shone. Artistic director and bandleader Charlton Singleton led the way on the trumpet while Quentin Baxter set the rhythm on drums and percussion. Tommy Gill’s performance on the piano provided a strong musical backbone for the CBT to work with.
The suite progressed with a series of sultry songs that elicited images of smoky Harlem nightclubs on hot summer nights. In pas de deux to love triangles, the strong female dancers smoldered, embodying their roles as seductive femmes fatale. Standout dancers included Stephanie Bussell and Andrea deVries, who held their own in scenes where they cajoled multiple male suitors. Conversely, there was a distracting lack of masculinity in the show. Male dancers seemed indifferent and were little more than props in the romantic numbers, listlessly lifting their female partners according to the choreography.
“Depk,” a male solo number, wavered between genres, forcing the dancer to alternatively leap and jive in muddled sequences. This was an overarching issue in Bahr’s choreography, which instead of adopting a hybrid dance style through which to interpret The Far East Suite, often awkwardly shifted between ballet, jazz, and swing styles. Additionally, the dance scarcely acknowledged the Eastern theme of the music.
The choreography seemed to find its place toward the end of the show in dance numbers like “Amad” and “Ad Lib on Nippori,” which flowed more naturally. Fluid ballet maneuvers like leaps were modified into flex-footed staccato jazz moves. Ironically, the most authentic and aesthetically pleasing dance occurred after the curtain call when the full company took the stage, transforming the space into their own nightclub, and, free of rigid choreography, allowed the music to direct their bodies.
Synchronizing the systematic eight-count-oriented medium of traditional ballet with the unruly rhythms of avant garde jazz is an enormous undertaking. While the CBT struggled at times to find its unique voice in the unique genre, the performance was not without its moments of brilliance, and backed by the outstanding CJO, The Ellington Experience made for an enjoyable evening of performance art.