… And All That Jazz: The Roaring ’20s Come to Life in Ballet Quad Cities’ "Blue River" Print
News/Features - Dance
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 07 March 2007 02:43

Ballet Quad Cities' Jason Gomez, Jake Lyon, Margaret Huling, and Colin ClaypoolTurn-of-the-20th-Century Davenport - its riverfront Bucktown area rife with saloons, speakeasys, and brothels - was, in its time, widely considered "the wickedest city in America." But Ballet Quad Cities' Matthew Keefe found a description he likes even more.

"There's a quote from the period," says Keefe, "that goes, ‘If God has forsaken Chicago, he's never even visited Davenport, Iowa."

He laughs. "Who knew?" asks Keefe. "Who knew that our town was such a wild and woolly place?"

Keefe hopes that, soon, we all will. Ballet Quad Cities' artistic director is currently in the process of bringing Davenport's wicked - and wickedly fun - past to life in April's production of Blue River, an original work choreographed by Keefe and featuring live music by local jazz performers Josh Duffee & His Orchestra. (Blue River and its companion piece, a classical, balletic adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale, will be performed at the Adler Theatre April 21 and 22.)

When, last summer, Keefe and Ballet Quad Cities Executive Director Joedy Cook were considering options for their organization's spring production, he admits being "really struck with the idea of Bix Beiderbecke music. The era really played for me." And, in keeping with the theme of that era, Keefe first pursued the idea of a stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby: "I felt like with the characters and everything, it was a really great idea for a ballet.

"But we found out," he continues, "that the rights for the storyline were (a) very expensive, and (b), restrictive, in that you had to do a fairly verbatim re-telling of the story. And my trying to blend in the Bix Beiderbecke music ... it wasn't working. So we stepped away from that, but we wanted to stick with the idea of working with the music and the period.

"I joked that ‘I don't think anyone has the rights to the '20s,'" says Keefe. "The Roaring '20s are still public domain, thank God.

"So we decided to kind of re-tool and create a narrative based on famous local events," he says, "and it evolved even further when I realized I wanted to try and capture the spirit of this community when Bix Beiderbecke was growing up."

And what spirit! "Davenport was a gilded-age city," says Keefe. "Post-World War I, the economy is booming ... and this place was crazy with the economy. People had money, they had a lot of traffic coming in and out, lots of excitement. I mean, they had three-day poker games here. The bars closed at, like, seven, eight, nine, 10 in the morning. It was just goin' on and on and on.

"And the music is just so bouncy and happy. ... I mean, even the blues wasn't like the sufferin' blues. It was melancholy, but it certainly didn't last very long," he says with a laugh.

Expanding on the concept for what would become Blue River - its title taken from a well-known period song famously performed by Al Jolson (who once worked as a singing waiter for the Davenport tavern Brick Munro's Pavilion) - Keefe envisioned a production in which "the story takes place in an evening," he says, "in an establishment where people gather to hear music and dance, be it a ballroom, a tavern, a showboat ... ."

It would feature Ballet Quad Cities performers demonstrating dances of the period ("from the Cake Walk to the Charleston to the Blackbottom," Keefe lists), and would also be shaped as a show-within-a-show. "It's a performance for the audience," says Keefe, "but I want to create a sort of vaudeville, cabaret-style performance for the people on stage, which gives us an opportunity to have a singer, tap dancers ... things that are more presentational."

And for the performance of the show's jazz-era score, Keefe turned to Duffee, who first met Keefe in October when playing percussion (alongside the Metrolites) for Ballet Quad Cities' Ballet Rocks II, and who admits to being "very excited" about "the totally unique opportunity to perform with professional dancers.

"There's something about that '20s style of music that really draws people in," Duffee says. "They love it. And it's nice that we can hit two markets of the area - the classical market [with The Nightingale] and the jazz market [with Blue River] - and bring them together. That's something that very rarely happens."

In composing a song list for Blue River, Duffee presented Keefe with four-dozen jazz-era options from his orchestra's repertoire; the duo whittled the 48 down to 12, and Duffee says that deciding exactly which numbers to include was tricky: "There are so many things to factor in with this. We had to look at tempos of songs, styles of songs, how long the songs are ... . And you also have to look at keys. You don't want to do too many songs in the key of F back to back; otherwise it sounds like the same, repetitive thing over and over.

"But the great thing about nailing those 12 down," Duffee continues, "is that we now have a skeleton of what we want to do, and where we want to put the songs." As in a concert or on a CD, he says, "the music tells a story, and you have to have them [the songs] in the right order to tell that story."

With more than six weeks to go before Blue River's opening, Duffee and Keefe are still in the process of determining that order, and Keefe is still refining the show's choreography. ("The thing that wakes me up at three in the morning," Keefe admits, "is that I have a lot of the high points and a lot of the progressions down, but it's the connecting points - making sure it all makes sense, that your eye is being pulled to the things I want you to see - that I wrestle back and forth with.")

But several other elements of Ballet Quad Cities' season-closing performance can be revealed. "On Saturday night," says Duffee, "from 10 o'clock to midnight, we [Josh Duffee & His Orchestra] are going to be playing music on stage at the Adler - music that we're not going to be playing in the show - and you can actually watch the performance and then come on stage and dance for two hours. Joedy came up with that idea."

The backdrop for Blue River will be based on the look of a popular - and still functional - '20s-era venue: "Basically, we've drawn our inspiration from the Col Ballroom," says Keefe. "We've gone on their Web site and gotten some old pictures of the ballroom in its heyday."

And, Keefe says, Blue River will acknowledge "not just the musical history, but the social history of this area," which is something that F. Scott Fitzgerald, for one, would certainly appreciate.

"Honestly," says Keefe, "if Gatsby is what led us to this place, so much the better. I mean, I'm feeling very inspired by the idea of that story. But the thing that's more important is that this community has a story to tell, you know?"

 

Ballet Quad Cities performs Blue River and The Nightingale at the Adler Theatre on April 21 at 7:30 p.m., and April 22 at 2 p.m. For information, visit (http://www.balletquadcities.com).