Performance » Dance

American Rhapsody

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The name George Gershwin is synonymous with jazz and American music in the early 20th century. Starting out as a humble "song plugger" in New York making $15 a week, Gerswhin would eventually compose more than a dozen classic songs, as well as many film and stage scores with his brother, Ira. Together, the brothers are credited with raising popular music to a new level of sophistication, and they even won a Pulitzer Prize for the comedy Of Thee I Sing.

George Gershwin is synonymous with jazz and American music in the early 20th century.
  • George Gershwin is synonymous with jazz and American music in the early 20th century.

It was George Gershwin's compositions, though, that inspired Dance Kaleidoscope's first show of 2014, American Rhapsody. It will feature Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, both choreographed by Artistic Director David Hochoy.

Rhapsody was commissioned by Paul Whiteman in 1924 as an experimental jazz concerto. Gershwin originally refused, until he discovered rival composer Vincent Lopez was planning to steal the idea. Then, with only five weeks until the concert, Gershwin hastily searched for inspiration and found it riding a train to Boston.

"It was on the train," he recalled later to a biographer, "with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer ... and there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end ... I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness."

With its iconic slinky clarinet opening, Rhapsody in Blue made Gershwin's reputation as a serious American composer. Hochoy originally choreographed this song in 2006, and while he has also loved An American in Paris for a long time, he put off choreographing it until this year.

"Gershwin stays on a track for about 30 seconds," explains Hochoy, "and then he switches, and then he switches, and then he switches.  It's very schizophrenic." 

An American in Paris was inspired by Gershwin's time in Paris in the 1920s, surrounded by other American expat artists -- Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso -- who divided their time between their art and the sexy, jazzy, Parisian nightlife. In the original 1928 show notes, the composer explains the schizophrenia comes from trying to portray the hectic scene of Parisian streets to an American tourist, who eventually feels homesick, but rebounds by the end of the song to enjoy Paris again. Gershwin scored the piece for all the typical orchestral instruments, and also for automobile horns.  He brought Parisian taxi horns back from France for the New York premiere of his composition.

Dance Kaleidoscope performs "American Rhapsody" Jan. 9-12.
  • Dance Kaleidoscope performs "American Rhapsody" Jan. 9-12.

There will be a break from Gershwin in American Rhapsody, though, for a piece from Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Farewell is a sad and poignant story that contrasts nicely with the frenetic energy of Gershwin's music, featuring Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras, a composition in which Villa-Lobos gives Brazilian music a Baroque makeover. One of the most significant Latin-American composers, Villa-Lobos claims to have narrowly escaped cannibals while researching native Brazilian music.  Fortunately, Farewell is not the story of those events, but it will still be a challenge.

"[Farewell] is a tour de force for the female dancer, because she's on stage for the whole time," says Hochoy who choreographed the piece in 1988, while still working with the renowned Martha Graham Dance Company in New York City.

Dance Kaleidoscope's stated mission is to reveal, through movement, "the full spectrum of human emotions," which makes the moniker of "kaleidoscope" pretty apt.  Opening the new year with American Rhapsody will definitely tackle that charge as it is a performance whose mood swings from melancholy to ecstasy as it explores the human experience, all through dance.

"Dance says things that other art forms can't," says Hochoy. "Basically, it's nonverbal communication; it's people communicating through their bodies. Because we're human and we have bodies ourselves, we have a kinesthetic experience. We feel what they're doing because we recognize those movements as being possible or impossible or magnificent, so it gives us an experience that nothing else can give us -- not music, not theater, not spoken word or written word. It's very powerful."

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