"We wanted to do a quintessentially American story," says Ann Dunn, director and choreographer of the Asheville Ballet, describing the impulse that inspired the company's upcoming performance. A light bulb of possibilities went off when co-choreographer Lyle Laney suggested An American in Paris: "It was like, 'Ding,'" says Dunn, "That's a great idea!"
The acclaimed 1928 composition by George Gershwin, inspired by his travels through the city of lights, features a score of beloved classical songs such as "I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise"; "I've Got Rhythm" and "Someone To Watch Over Me." The composition also narrates a beautiful love story set in one of the world's most romantic cities.
"We are very attracted to Gershwin," says Dunn, "If you're a choreographer, you just see dance: You hear a horn or a saxophone and you see [movement of the] hips and legs." For Laney, who, in addition to choreographing, will be performing the lead role in the production, Gershwin's symphony is an absolute joy to work with, inspiring the ballet's style, mood and theatrical quality. "The music is so fantastically wonderful," he says, "and the style of the movement comes out of the music."
Combing classical ballet with modern dance, jazz and sexy French cabaret styles — while creating decidedly different choreography from Gene Kelly's, featured in the 1951 musical film An American in Paris — the production is quite an ambitious undertaking. For the Asheville Ballet, the challenge makes the creative process all the more rewarding, says Dunn.
Set in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of World War II, the ballet tells the story of an American G.I. named Jerry, performed by Laney, who stays in Europe after the war to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. Painting on the streets beside the Seine River— where lovers often stroll— he meets a sophisticated art collector named Milo, performed by Allison Hertzberg, who takes great interest in his art, and in him.
Together, Milo and Jerry go to a concert in a basement café. With people dancing around them and a jazz band performing in the corner, Jerry looks across the room and sees a young, strikingly beautiful Parisian woman, Lise, performed by Sarah McGinnis. Locking eyes, the dancers are immediately compelled to each other: The love story begins. Little does Jerry know then, however, that Lise is engaged to marry one of Paris' most respected singers, a man named Henri, performed by Jaimon Howell.
On cobblestone streets beside the Seine River, Jerry and Lise confess their feelings in a seven-minute pas de deux, a lover's duet choreographed by Laney. Sensual and filled with tension, the dance "expresses so tenderly and beautifully the innocent and powerful attraction between Jerry and Lise, that, when the audience discovers that she must marry Henri, it's tragic," says Dunn. "The choreography is beautiful: It demonstrates the essence of love."
Laney hopes that the duet will remind the audience of what it feels like to fall in love for the first time. The duet ends with Lise running from Jerry's arms, torn between her commitment to Henri and her desire for Jerry.
To bring the flavors, sounds and ambiance of Paris to the stage, the company will perform in front of an elaborate set: A colorful Parisian street scene, with the Eiffel Tower shining in the background. The ballet opens with a street scene that strives to set the mood for the concert as a whole. "There are vendors, people carrying baskets of fruit and bread, waitresses waiting tables at outdoor cafes, children laughing, taxi cabs [honking] and intellectuals dressed in black and discussing philosophy, " says Dunn, as she hums and sings the various tunes associated with each character.
Costumes also add to the production's European atmosphere. Young ladies in the company will wear black, sleeveless turtleneck shirts (a classical Parisian look) coupled with ballet skirts. Men will wear white pants and red-and-white striped vests with straw boater hats, a look that combines French fashion styles with classical ballet attire. Lise performs in a red-and-white striped dress, and Jerry, a true American, wears a polo shirt and baseball cap.
The last scene in the production is an epic 17-minute finale. Jerry, after watching Lise leave with Henri, picks up a rose, waves it across his face and has a vision. In a dream-like state, Jerry reflects on his many experiences in Paris. In these last minutes of the show, every dancer returns to the stage as characters in Jerry's vision, attacking him, swirling around him and bombarding him. When Jerry emerges from his thoughts a resolution reveals itself.
"And," says Dunn, "it's a happy ending."
Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Asheville Ballet
what: An American in Paris
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Friday and Saturday, May 7 and 8 (7:30 p.m. $25 adults/$20 students/$15 children. Info: 257-4530, dwtheatre.com or ashevilleballet.com)