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Beyond Category

David Roussève: Halfway to Dawn, REDCAT, October 4, 2018 —

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington deserved his royal nickname. Throughout his fifty-year reign as America’s premier composer/pianist/band leader and goodwill ambassador to the world, Ellington spoke and carried himself in a courtly, regal manner. He routinely used the “royal we” when acknowledging applause from his audiences–as in, “we love you madly”–and referred to himself, with amused and characteristic noblesse oblige, simply as “our pianist.” He was charming and grandiose, elegant and hip.

In truth, the princely Ellington’s empire was actually quite small; it consisted of about fifteen loyal musicians, all with virtually lifetime jobs, and a retinue that included a barber, a road manager and a band boy who looked after everyone’s instruments and luggage. Backstage for nearly three decades, there was also a small, quiet, bespectacled man named Billy Strayhorn who seemed to be more comfortable in the shadows. His original songs, brilliant orchestrations and creative intelligence enabled mid-career Ellington to refresh and enhance the band. He therefore earned the highest of all Ellington compliments: Strayhorn was “beyond category.”

 

On October 4th in downtown Los Angeles, REDCAT presented the world premiere of Halfway to Dawn, a multi-media look at Strayhorn’s rather bittersweet life. Written, choreographed and directed by David Rousseve and performed ably by Reality, his company of nine dancers, the show is a biography portrayed through dance, fifteen Strayhorn songs and words and images projected on a screen. Rousseve writes that he was “seeking to excavate the deeper truths of the life of this famously private, out and gay, artist, thinker and activist”. He definitely accomplishes his goal in “Halfway to Dawn”. If not entirely “beyond category”, the work deserves high marks for its exuberant dancers, its absorbing sound mix and for bringing Strayhorn out of the shadows, for his fans and neophytes alike.

One of eight  children—three others died in infancy—of a loving mother and an abusive father, Strayhorn was born with rickets in 1915 into near-poverty in Ohio. He grew up in Pittsburgh but his eighth through eleventh summers were spent in the peaceful North Carolina home of his grandparents where a piano in the house captivated young Bill. He worked at two after-school jobs back in Pittsburgh so he could buy sheet music, lessons and his own piano before he was twelve. (“You can’t learn to play one if you haven’t got one” he later recalled.). He wrote popular songs, played in a trio with two friends and continued his classical music studies. Smart and determined, he awed an audience when he performed Grieg’s Piano concerto flawlessly. In 1935, he created his high school’s graduation show, called “Fantastic Rhythm”, for which he wrote and arranged ten songs. Soon after, backers produced a limited but larger version of the show and Strayhorn was on his way as a composer.

The shy, delicate Strayhorn tried to hide his nascent homosexuality but it was hardly a secret from close friends. He was so talented and kind that everyone was fond of him. He dealt with his complicated feelings by writing private song lyrics , refining one of them, Lush Life, from 1936 until 1939. The result is still remarkable, eight decades later: sophisticated, world-weary lyrics, beautiful, advanced musical ideas and a stunning, adult understanding of deep, human emotions. The song was one of Strayhorn’s calling cards when he met Ellington briefly at a theater in 1938. At their second meeting months later, Ellington said: “You’re with me” and had Strayhorn move into his family’s New York home.

Rousseve, a Princeton graduate and Guggenheim Fellow, begins “Halfway to Dawn” at this historical point, (although Strayhorn, for more privacy, had soon moved to his own apartment.) The stage fills with nine dancers in black tights and shorts and the five men and four women move about the stage with athletic ease; they dance alone, work in pairs or trios and combine at times into unified, larger groups. It is as if one is watching a rehearsal with the dancers loosening up, doing time steps, having fun, moving freely; they each appear equally happy whether dancing with one another or alone. That self-sufficiency seemed to be a point Rousseve continued to make about Strayhorn.

Throughout the evening, dancers are almost always on stage, moving to the excellent recorded music, and often pondering the screen behind them which displays occasional images of cocktail glasses and swirling cigarette smoke and important facts about Strayhorn’s life in bold, black letters. Scenes of Harlem life in the 1940s, enacted through dance, suggest “rent parties” and a raid by police, likely to bust reported gay activity. At times, a single male dancer evokes Strayhorn’s loneliness. The effect is sublime.

There were, however, two segments in the first act that seemed to have been added simply to elongate it. First, a dancer broke “the fourth wall” and spoke at length directly to the audience in a kind of jokey, familiar way. Second, a dancer with a glass of water “gargled” Take The A-Train, Strayhorn’s tune that became Ellington’s theme song. The former was clearly a filler and, while silly, had no apparent reason to be in the show. The latter, aside from being one of the funniest bits I have ever seen, anywhere, also interrupted the overall mood of the piece. Both interludes could be excised without being missed.

The second act, which opens with the ensemble doing their “rehearsal” dances again, this time in white outfits, features more abstract images on the screen including cigarettes burning down to the nub and glasses overflowing with booze. Strayhorn was an alcoholic, seldom without a drink and, at only 51 years of age, his life was cut short by esophageal cancer. The video art and screen concepts by Cari Ann Shim Sham* are effective but, as an audience member near me commented, “it’s time to retire that Sad Clown image forever.”

Movements suggest the long-lasting, private relationships Strayhorn had with a couple of men, “tinged with the sadness”–to use his own words–explained on the screen: despite invaluable contributions to Ellington, Strayhorn’s name was rarely if ever on the sheet music of songs he wrote, denying him copyrights and revenue. Although Ellington paid for rent, clothes, food and travel for Strayhorn throughout their contract-free relationship, he clearly took advantage of his co-creator and “right-hand”. Insults from an ignorant publicist about Strayhorn’s homosexuality only made things worse. All this came at a time when Strayhorn was having late-night discussions with Martin Luther King and devoting his time and money to the civil rights cause.

After a chilly stand-off with Ellington, Strayhorn visited Paris many times and spent long periods in Hollywood. He was an intimate of Lena Horne and she always admitted that Strayhorn educated her, improved her vocal abilities and was the true love of her life. Frank Sinatra’s eagerness to sign Strayhorn to his new Reprise Records label was the final straw for Ellington. Adjustments were made, credit was finally, publicly given and their artistic arrangement continued. The two worked in tandem, as they had before, on several suites of music, the film score of “Anatomy of a Murder” and on special arrangements for tours around the world.

The sound design in “Halfway to Dawn”, by d. Sabela Grimes, is quite moving at times, the highlight surely being Lush Life in the middle of the second act. The song is sung exquisitely by Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied by pianist Oscar Peterson. Mirroring the break-down in Strayhorn’s life and health, more elements are blended into the audio mix: labored breath, the awkward first recording of the song, by Nat “King” Cole, and a swirl of sounds that suggest confused, drunken, late-night record-playing by a man whose life is coming to an end. “As Strayhorn’s life begins to unravel,” says Rousseve, “the piece begins to unravel as well. It’s more abstract and surreal.”

The nine outstanding dancers deserve to be named. They are: Bernard Brown, Raymond Ejiofor, Dezare Foster, Jasmine Jawato, Kevin Le, Julio Medina, Samantha Mohr, Leanne Iacovetta Poirer and Kevin Williamson. In one or another configuration, they are on-stage and physically active for the entire performance. Despite Rousseve’s program note that “There is no relationship between the timeline” (the words on the screen) “and the dances beyond their tone, textures and throughlines of emotion”, it would be less confusing to the audience if the overhead data was more aligned with the dancers’ movements. (At times in the 1940s and ’50s-set first act, for example, the information on the screen refers to events in the 1960s of the second act.)

David Rousseve , a Professor of Choreography at UCLA, founded his dance/ theatre company, Reality, in 1988. Together, they have presented commissioned ballet and theatre works throughout the world. He is also a published writer, has directed several short films and has received scores of awards and multiple NEA grants. He writes “As a gay citizen of color who grew up at the apex of the civil rights movement, above all else my work hopes to create an empathetic conversation that transcends the boundaries of difference to communicate on the level of the heart.” (Strayhorn would have appreciated that thought as well as Rousseve’s conception for this show.)

“Halfway to Dawn”—a favorite phrase of Strayhorn’s—is an important work of art, quite moving at times, wonderfully danced and a must-see for anyone interested in black history, American jazz, homophobia and two important cultural icons of the twentieth century–one of them world-renowned, the other almost a mystery to the public. Some in the audience, this viewer included, felt the show could be improved with a couple of clarifications and cuts–mentioned above—perhaps even combining the two slightly trimmed sections into a tighter evening, without an intermission. That said, “Halfway to Dawn” is the heartfelt and heart-breaking homage that Billy Strayhorn’s charmed but difficult life richly deserves.

Comments

  1. This is a wonderful piece–sure made me want to get a ticket!

  2. Kathleen Devlin says:

    Thank you, Mr. Hughes, for your article on David Rousseve’s dance biography of the tragic and talented Billy Strayhorn.

  3. DVaccarino says:

    Great review, empathetic and devoted to the subject.
    Strayhorn is one of the best but an under championed musician – GO Strayhorn!!
    Thanks for this terrific tribute for all involved. Sorry to have missed it.

  4. Christine McBurney says:

    A wonderful, informative article on a genius
    who somehow has stayed in the shadows since his
    death. A much-deserved homage to Mr. Strayhorn
    and to those amazing dancers!

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