San Diego Spotlight : SummerPops Ballet Star Happy to Have Orchestra

Among the program innovations in this year’s San Diego Symphony SummerPops, the addition of ballet to is the most novel. From Wednesday through next Saturday, dancers Cynthia Gregory and Medhi Bahiri will present three excerpts from classic ballets by Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Delibes on the dance-oriented Pops program. The generous size of the outdoor stage will allow the symphony to put down a 24- by 40-foot dance floor in front of the orchestra, which will be elevated and moved as far to the rear of the stage as possible.

But, even with the space limitations of this arrangement, Gregory said, working with a symphony orchestra is worth the sacrifice.

“When you’re dancing, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world to have a first-rate symphony behind you instead of a mere pit orchestra,” she said from her residence in Stamford, Conn.

Noted for her celebrated career with the American Ballet Theatre--Gregory observed her 20th anniversary with the company in 1985--the dancer is known for her interpretations of “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “Coppelia” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” In contemporary ballet, Gregory has danced in more than 80 new works, including 12 created for her.


“For the San Diego Symphony program, we tried to pick the examples that had the best music, because some dances have pretty weak scores.”

In Glazunov’s Variations from “Raymonda,” the “White Swan” pas de deux from “Swan Lake” and Delibes’ Act Three Variations from “Coppelia,” Gregory will have Bahiri, a French-trained Algerian dancer with whom she has worked since 1986, as partner.

Gregory describes herself as a musical dancer, in part because of strong musical influences in her family.

“I use the music to my advantage, and I try to phrase differently every time I dance. I come from a musical family and studied piano as a little girl. My uncle, George Tremblay was a a composer, and my grandfather was an organist. I always heard wonderful music played around the house.”


(A student of Arnold Schonberg when he taught in Los Angeles, Tremblay became a 12-tone disciple of the Austrian guru. According to Gregory, Tremblay also taught Andre Previn and Quincy Jones.)

Gregory added that her parents were intent on her becoming a pianist rather than a dancer.

“They thought dancers were like floozies.”

Although Gregory refuses to teach ballet, she commutes to New York City daily to study with her longtime teacher, Wilhelm Buhrman.


“I’m always being asked to teach master classes, but I don’t like the idea. I do love coaching, which is an entirely different thing. Coaching means working on finer points with experienced dancers, but teaching the basics of ballet is not my cup of tea.”

Gregory, in her mid 40s, is writing her autobiography and is plagued with a title she suggested in jest to her publishers, “Black and Blue Swan.”

“I hate it. I humorously came up with it because ballerinas go through a lot of pain. But I’ll never use that title. Now, if I could only come up with a better idea!”

Partch instruments depart. San Diego will lose custody of the unique collection of odd, Dada-inspired musical instruments invented and crafted by composer Harry Partch. Since Partch’s death in 1974, the collection has been housed at San Diego State University under the supervision of SDSU music professor and Partch protege Danlee Mitchell. Last week, Mitchell announced that he is placing the entire collection on permanent loan to New York City-based composer Dean Drummond.


“I felt it was time to put the instruments in New York, where they would have better exposure,” Mitchell explained. “Drummond was was part of the Partch Ensemble in the late 1960s, and he expressed an interest in doing Partch performances.”

Mitchell noted that the 42-year-old Drummond and his ensemble Newband staged Partch’s “Revelations in the Courthouse Park” at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1989. Mitchell lent the requisite instruments for those performances and left them in Drummond’s possession. The rest of Partch’s 30 microtonal instruments will be shipped to New York later this fall.

Unlike the conventional tuning system that divides the octave into 12 equal half steps, Partch’s microtonal system divided the octave into as many as 43 distinct divisions. Although Partch entrusted his instruments to Mitchell, the eccentric composer gave no specific instructions for their use upon his demise.

“Even during Partch’s lifetime, the use of his instruments by other composers never really came up because the instruments were so much a part of his own life environment,” Mitchell explained. “The sole exception I remember is Ben Johnson, who wrote a film score in the late 1940s using Partch instruments.”


Mitchell started the Harry Partch Ensemble in 1972 at SDSU and gave occasional performances of major Partch stage works such as “Bewitched.” In 1980, Mitchell took his ensemble to perform in West Berlin for an international music festival. Although local performances by the Partch Ensemble have dwindled in recent years, Mitchell was unable to give a reason for the paucity of Partch.

Symphony update. Coronado native Kevin Kenner, the evergreen competition winner who played the Grieg Piano Concerto with the San Diego Symphony in June, has been added to the orchestra’s 1991-92 winter season. May 15-17, Kenner will replace Malcolm Frager, who died June 20 in Pittsfield, Mass. Under the baton of music director Yoav Talmi, Kenner will play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major.