As far as Ann Dunn knows, her Asheville Civic Ballet Company is breaking new ground in presenting George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess as a ballet.
Even is Porgy has been done as a dance piece before, the upcoming production is unique for another reason. In both the original production and most subsequent ones, the principal roles were played by African-Americans. Most of the dancers in ACBC’s production, however, are white.
“But that’s not really an issue,” Dunn insists. “Porgy and Bess is a universal story. It’s about love, jealousy, yearning for more than what you’ve got, and the power of optimism, faith and love to overcome evil. These are themes that transcend race. Besides, ballet is, essentially, theater. It’s make-believe. You have to suspend belief for a while.”
In fact, such concerns may be particularly appropriate given the history of the piece. Porgy, notes Dunn, “opened up the doors to black [dancers].” In the same way, she argues, the work “should be accessible to every [dancer]. … That’s not to say that [the issue of race] is irrelevant, but I think it’s important to recognize that the story’s passions and themes are not particular to one race of people.”
Oralene Simmons, event director at the YMI Cultural Center, said: “I am sorry that no black dancers auditioned, and I think people who go to the show assuming that the leads are black might be disappointed. That’s not to say the performance won’t be good. … These are two different issues.”
Anthony Gongora, a professional dancer from New York, will play Porgy, while Corey Sinyai — whom many will recognize as the Sugar Plum Fairy from the local production of The Nutcracker — takes on the part of Bess. The rest of the cast features professional dancers who’ve performed around the country, a 12-member men’s corps, and a team of serious young local dancers. (Also look for the work of local artists in the sets, costumes and lighting.)
“Every step is brand new. No one’s ever seen it before,” says Dunn, with obvious excitement. “It all came straight out of my head.”
It’s summertime in the Charleston, S.C. neighborhood Catfish Row. It’s hot, sultry, and — as the song goes — “the living is easy.” But for Porgy and Bess, getting to the easy part takes some hard living, hard loving, heartbreak and forgiving. And in Ann Dunn’s version, it takes some dancing, too.
But Gershwin’s original opera is an American classic — so why change its format? For Dunn, the answer is obvious: “When I hear music, I see dance. And the music in Porgy and Bess just begs to be danced.”
Before it could be danced, though, the original score needed to be reworked. For that task, Dunn turned to Asheville pianist Chuck Lichtenberger.
“I described my vision to him, then turned him loose.”
Lichtenberger confirms that Dunn more or less gave him free reign. Was tampering with a master composer’s well-known songs intimidating? Maybe at first: “But Porgy and Bess is a jazzy show, and my background is in jazz,” he notes.
The resulting score is a sensuous re-vamping of familiar favorites, plus two new instrumentals.
Popular Asheville blues singer Kat Williams will deliver the vocals for the entire show, backed by Lichtenberger, Grant Cuthberson (bass) and Vic Stafford (drums). No wonder Dunn can’t keep still when she talks about this aspect of the production. Throughout our interview, she jumped up and danced the part she was describing, while she and Lichtenberger hummed or sang the attending song.
Maintaining the improvisational nature of true jazz while providing the musical underpinnings needed in ballet presented Lichtenberger with something of a challenge. But Dunn feels the musicians have met that challenge head-on: “The score is great. And there is some room for improvement, at least during the hurricane scene towards the end. It’s this wild scene that Chuck’s handled kind of like an African-American spiritual. For the most part, though, all I asked is that he and Kat capture the spontaneity of jazz and freeze that moment in place.”
At a recent rehearsal, the featured moves blended the grace and lyricism of classical ballet with the freedom and flexibility of modern dance. Performed by just one woman wearing blue jeans and a plain black blouse, the choreography was captivating. Performed by 50 dancers in full period costume to live music, the show will be electric — and a little risky, too.
Lichtenberger, Williams and the other musicians are fully aware that their playing needs to be near-perfect during the performances. “There’s nothing like live music with choreographed dance,” observes Dunn.
“If you’re in the middle of a leap and the tempo changes, you can’t not come down.”