‘Burlesque,’ a new Lincoln Jones ballet, a new collaboration with Charles Wuorinen and why it works
Lincoln Jones hopped off a skateboard and hurried toward afternoon rehearsal.
His dancers, dressed in black and wearing heels, waited along a window near a laptop that played the score of “Burlesque,” Jones’ new work for his American Contemporary Ballet. A head turned. A leg arched. An arm unfurled and fluttered. The dancers moved as if shadows slipping slyly against the skyline, where, Jones said, he wanted “feminine glamour to meet the tension within.”
“Burlesque” is the choreographer’s latest journey into the erotic, a terrain where classical form plays with temptation and the allure of beauty. Jones commissioned the score from Charles Wuorinen, the Pultizer Prize-winning composer known for his cerebral, 12-tone modernist style. Jones had wanted an original work from Wuorinen since his ballet company performed the composer’s “Inferno” this time last year.
Jones has re-imagined parts of “Inferno” and paired it with “Burlesque,” a double bill that opens the company’s eighth season Friday. The collaboration between the choreographer and composer — commissioned ballet scores are rare these days — is an exploration of Wuorinen’s intricate flights and Jones’ blend of past and present, earthen and dreamlike. The works, which conjure Dante’s version of hell and a red-light trip into the alleys of art and the libido, fittingly arrive the same month as Halloween.
His skateboard stowed, Jones wandered through rehearsal, counting out beats, consulting the score and breaking off alone, head down, reworking steps. He is a consummate tinkerer, tapping, soft-shoeing, a man adrift in bars and meters. The dancers, twirling against windows 32 floors above downtown in the company’s studio, seemed as if slender, dark banners blowing across the horizon.
“This music takes me to a new place in body and mind,” said Theresa Farrell, a dancer and executive director of American Contemporary Ballet. “You have to listen to the changes in notes and meters. It’s not always obvious like the swell of Tchaikovsky. The rhythms are more complex. There’s depth to it. This darkness and sexuality. It lets me speak with my body.”
A perfect collaboration between physical motion on the stage and musical motion in the pit is that neither compromises the integrity of the other.
The following are edited excerpts from conversations with Jones, who moved his company here from New York in 2011, and Wuorinen, who has written more than 270 compositions, including “Brokeback Mountain,” an opera based on Annie Proulx’s tragic story of two gay cowboy lovers.
Lincoln, where did the idea for “Burlesque” come from?
Jones: It’s had a long evolution. I’ve always been attracted to the relationship between popular and classical forms. There’s been a resurgence of burlesque, and a lot of it has that bump-and-grind and swing feel to it. But in the 1950s and ’60s, burlesque was a series of tiny skits. I wanted to see what I could do with professional ballet dancers in skits that I hadn’t seen before. What seized me was the idea of solo female performers exhibiting more than just skin. That’s what’s happening in really good burlesque. You get a personality. How could I use that to display something more, and something that has more substance to it musically and compositionally?
What kind of music were you looking for, Lincoln? And, Charles, how did you approach the project?
Jones: If Charles’ music was a topographical map, there’s a lot there, and it lends itself to a lot of potential movement and meaning conveyed in sculptural form in a progression of events. I wanted Charles to write music for this to take the conventions of burlesque and distill and amplify them. The commissioning of ballet was common in Tchaikovsky’s time but is rare today. George Balanchine of course did it with composer Igor Stravinsky. It’s the most exciting process. You get to create something from scratch. You can plant an idea in a composer’s head.
Wuorinen: I’m not terribly interested in narrative dances, although I did make a three-ballet series derived from the “Divine Comedy.” Those didn’t tell a story or try to represent the narrative, but rather to refer to various aspects of it in a symbolic way. That’s the way I approached this. I want to make a coherent musical statement. My concern is to try and absorb a generality of ideas presented to me and then go and write my piece.
It’s written for two pianos. Why?
Wuorinen: A practical matter. There weren’t unlimited resources for lots of instruments. It seemed to me that two pianos — the instruments are readily available — offer coverage of the complete range of all instruments. One isn’t constrained in any way.
America has long had a curious relationship with sexuality. It’s been closeted, exploited, celebrated. The early days of burlesque were an indication of that. We’re now in a #MeToo era that emphasizes protecting women against harassment and exploitation. How does “Burlesque” fit into this?
Jones: It’s an opportunity to explore the power of the female and feminine sexuality and eroticism. So often when that is done, because of perhaps our innate Puritanism that comes from our history, there’s a dichotomy. And when sexuality or the erotic are dealt with, they are [portrayed] as separate things as opposed to being integrated into the whole. But it should be integrated and not seen as something separate.
Charles, one of the dancers in “Burlesque” says your music is complex and demanding but that it takes her to different and unexpected places.
Wuorinen: That’s what we want. We don’t want to wrap people in a comfort blanket. We don’t want to be mean or challenge them unnecessarily. But the whole purpose of doing this activity whatever the art may be is to try and elevate and expand perception and sensibility. Unfortunately, with a lot of mainstream performing institutions there’s an awful lot of comfort blanket stuff. I don’t have anything against it, but it shouldn’t be the only thing or be the standard by which everything else is evaluated.
Lincoln, you’re a student of musical history and Charles is an exacting composer. What was your collaboration like?
Jones: Charles is a lot smarter than me, but I felt a real artistic sympathy with him right from the beginning. He’s got a voracious mind and is very informed about what he does. I knew this was somebody I wanted to work with.
Wuorinen: Lincoln and I met two or three years ago in New York, and we discussed various ideas for collaboration. He was well-versed musically, and he had a degree of sophistication that not everyone in the dance world possesses.
What are the challenges of working with Charles’ musical structures?
Jones: It’s harder to memorize [laughs]. The meter changes, but also he’s got so many voices going. For the dancers, there are constant changes of bar lengths of three-four, four-four, seven-four, three-eight or whatever it may be. But there are also trickier things, like quintuplet in one voice against two triplets in the other traveling over a bar of four-four. It’s very complex. I am up for it, but it can still be daunting. One of my goals is to get as many scores out of Charles as I can. He’s attentive to the fact that in dance a gesture can only be so long. I [contrast] what he does with what Philip Glass does. He creates atmospheric soundscapes.
Charles, what impact did the ballets of Balanchine and Stravinsky have on you?
Wuorinen: One always looks to Balanchine as I suppose the greatest choreographer of the 20th century. Some of his projects were very daring. I was [also] very influenced as everyone was of my generation with Stravinsky. I was present at the very first performance of [Balanchine and Stravinsky’s collaboration] “Agon” when it first went up at the City Center in New York. I still retain after  years, certain visual memories of the stage and certain striking things that Balanchine did. For me the epitome of a perfect collaboration between physical motion on the stage and musical motion in the pit is that neither compromises the integrity of nor detracts from the other.
‘Burlesque’ and ‘Inferno’
Who: American Contemporary Ballet
Where: The Bloc, 700 S. Flower St., Suite 3200 (enter at 750 W. 7th St.), Los Angeles
When: Friday and Saturday nights, Oct. 12-27, plus two Halloween performances on Oct 31
Tickets: $45-$90 Oct. 13-31; $200-$500 Oct. 12 (opening night)
Info: (213) 878-9020, acbdances.com
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