Manny Crisostomo / mcristomo@sacbee.com

Sacramento Ballet dancers Alexandra Cunningham and Stefan Calka rehearse a scene from "The Great Gatsby." They dance the roles of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby.

Sac Ballet flaps into 'Great Gatsby'

Published: Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5TICKET

Think back to high school lit class and you'll remember it. "The Great Gatsby" was the ultimate essence-of-an-era tale.

It explored a tumultuous period of change in our country: post-World War I, the Roaring '20s, prosperity and Prohibition, greed and grief, love and lust and, yes, all that amazing music (George Gershwin, Tommy Dorsey, Irving Berlin).

And now it will have dancing, as well.

The Sacramento Ballet roars into the second half of its season with co-artistic director Ron Cunningham's world premiere of the classic period novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The show – Cunningham's first new ballet in five years – opens Thursday and runs through next Sunday at the Community Center Theater.

It's perfect timing as Cunningham celebrates his 25th anniversary with the company.

Over the years, he has offered a mixed repertoire to audiences – classics such as "Romeo & Juliet" and "Cinderella," the works of George Balanchine and an over-the-top original "Dracula."

Cunningham's "The Great Gatsby" will take another career step by mixing all the elements: dancing, acting, music and song, all while staying true to the novel's time stamp – the year 1922.

"This is a huge production (about 80 minutes) with lots and lots of moving parts, including sets and costumes," Cunningham said on a rare day off. "And live music! We're excited to have Billy Novick and his band performing. They will arrive to rehearse with the company on Monday when we move into the theater."

As expected, music plays a key role in the Sacramento production. Accompanying the dancers will be Boston-based jazz legend Novick and his band, the Blue Syncopators, and E. Faye Butler, the legendary blues singer from Chicago.

Cunningham said "Gatsby" the ballet is something he's wanted to choreograph for at least 10 years because, quite simply, he loves the story.

He started working on the piece in earnest at the end of last season alongside his wife and co-artistic director Carinne Binda.

For Cunningham, the lingering question was, "Can I tell it with credibility?" something he did in 1999 with his stirring version of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

He did his own version of literature-class homework and studied how the novel has taken a variety of pop-culture forms since Fitzgerald wrote it. It's a complex story that focuses on a group of people living near one another on Long Island, right after World War I.

Nick Carraway, the narrator, is from the Midwest and is quickly drawn to bon vivant Jay Gatsby and his mysterious and lavish lifestyle. Two other couples – including the wealthy but unhappy Tom and Daisy Buchanan (and Tom's fated mistress, Myrtle Wilson) – are part of the drama and the partying as secrets build toward a fateful end.

There have been movies, including the 1974 version starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston and one in 1949 starring Alan Ladd, Betty Field and Shelley Winters.

Australian director Baz Luhrmann's upcoming "The Great Gatsby" starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan opens in May.

Sacramento's is a world premiere, but other dance companies, including the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Atlanta Ballet and the Washington Ballet, also have original works based on the novel. And Novick was commissioned by the D.C. company to create a score for its production. Cunningham said Novick wrote about a third of the music, which will be performed in Sacramento.

"The music is so important. It supports the drama and the telling of the story," Cunningham said. "For 'Gatsby,' Billy has put together lots of great tunes from the era that bridge the scenes musically."

As for the dancing, Cunningham asserted, "You're not a good choreographer if you can't create good dances to Roaring '20s music."

He started with a big group dance, the Charleston, and tapped into fond memories of his mother, who grew up in Tennessee. She taught him the dance when he was 8 years old.

"She won a Charleston contest when she was a young girl," he said, "so I wanted to do this in her memory."

The company dancers said they have had a blast learning the Charleston (even in pointe shoes) and surrounding themselves with tunes such as "Ain't We Got Fun" and "I'll See You in My Dreams."

The scenery is lavish, with sets borrowed from the Pittsburgh production of "Gatsby." There's Carraway's cottage, Gatsby's mansion, the interior of the Buchanans' home, the Valley of the Ashes, the Plaza Hotel and cityscapes in New York and Louisville, Ky.

The costumes, also from Pittsburgh, are supplemented with fashions from costume shops around the country. The women will wear wigs and jewelry from the era.

"Gatsby's" principal cast will be the same for the run of the show: Stefan Calka as Gatsby; Alexandra Cunningham and Christopher Nachtrab as the Buchanans; Amanda Peet as Wilson; Michael Separovich as her husband, George Wilson; Isha Lloyd as Jordan Baker, Daisy Buchanan's friend, and Oliver-Paul Adams dancing the narrator's role of Carraway.

Connor Mickiewicz, artistic director of New Helvetia Theatre, will deliver Nick's spoken narrative and double as a vocalist.

Cunningham said the choreography and music are supported by terrific acting. All the characters are seen through Carraway's eyes – both good and bad.

"Alexandra made an interesting observation the other day," Cunningham said. "She said Daisy was the first role she has tackled that's not entirely sympathetic. Daisy is flighty, with more of a surfaced sweetness. Not at all like the fairy tale people in 'Cinderella' or 'Sleeping Beauty.'

"It's crazy fun," he added. "And it's uniquely American because the time period produced wildly excessive behavior, especially the drinking. The war to end all wars was over. There was relief and with it, easy money and good times."

"Gatsby" might be uniquely American, but there are several new Sacramento Ballet dancers who come from other countries, including Japan and Hungary. They had never heard of "The Great Gatsby" before this show.

The separate opening number for next week's show will be another nod to the past, George Balanchine's classic "Who Cares?" which features delightful dancing to Gershwin's classic show tunes.

As the dancers put the finishing touches on their Charleston and the flapper dresses given their dazzle, Cunningham has a final "Gatsby" twist to tackle:

"We've got to kill Myrtle, but who's driving the car?"


THE GREAT GATSBY

What: The Sacramento Ballet and Ron Cunningham's world premiere ballet of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel with live period music from Billy Novick's Blue Syncopators. "Gatsby" will be preceded on the playbill by George Balanchine's "Who Cares?"

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, next Friday and Feb. 9, and 2 p.m. Feb. 10

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Tickets: $17-$70 at www.tickets.com, at the Community Center Box Office 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, or call the box office, (916) 808-5181

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Leigh Grogan



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