If you were fortunate enough to see the memorable production of “The Great Gatsby” in 2017 when it kicked off the Dayton Ballet’s Ruby Jubilee season, you’ve probably not forgotten it. The idea was to stage a ballet set in a time frame that would complement the company’s 80th anniversary and the 90th anniversary of the Dayton Ballet School.
The delightful story ballet takes us back to the glitzy and glamorous Roaring 20s. It was choreographed by Ron Cunningham, artistic director emeritus of the Sacramento Ballet, who has created 60 ballets for the international stage over the years. His “Gatsby” had a world premiere in 1913 to mark his 25th year anniversary in Sacramento.
The production, which charmed Dayton audiences in 2017, will return to the Victoria stage the weekend of April 8-10. In addition to great dancing, it’s staged with local blues singer Felita LaRock, recorded music by Billy Novick and the Blue Syncopators, colorful period costumes and a narrator who tells the juicy tale. The full professional company of Dayton Ballet, along with dancers from Dayton Ballet II and the Dayton Ballet School, will take the stage.
Cunningham has said there were a couple of reasons he selected “The Great Gatsby” for dance. “First of all, it’s a good story that’s considered the great American novel,” he explained when he originally came to town for three weeks to set the ballet. “Even those who haven’t read the book are often familiar with it. If audiences walk into the theater already knowing something about the plot and characters, it makes the storytelling in dance much easier. How many people have read ‘Romeo and Juliet? But everybody knows what happens.”
“The Great Gatsby,” was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel, and his most famous. It’s the story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby, his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan and their lavish parties on Long Island, New York.
The plot revolves around Midwest native and would-be writer Nick Carraway, who comes to New York City in search of the American dream and moves next door to Gatsby. “These characters are not nice people,” Cunningham says. “Daisy is shallow and dumps Gatsby in order to marry a rich guy. Gatsby becomes a bootlegger to win her back. Tom, Daisy’s husband, is a misogynist, brutal and prejudiced.”
The story is known to be autobiographical. “Because Fitzgerald was a Midwestern boy, he could have come from Dayton, Ohio,” Cunningham says. " He’s thrown in with these high-class moneyed people. At the beginning Nick admires them. That admiration erodes as he sees them for what they are.”
Telling the story
Playing the role of Nick Carraway is actor Jamie Cordes, a veteran of the Human Race Theatre Company and senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre, Dance & Motion Pictures at Wright State University. Cordes appeared in the Dayton Ballet’s original production of Gatsby and is a singing teacher in the Professional Acting Training Program at Wright State, providing vocal training to musical theater, acting, dance, and theater studies majors.
The narration for the ballet comes directly from the book as told by the character of Nick Carraway. “The storytelling in this production is a blissful blend of dance, narration, and music/song,” Cordes says. “I think I would describe Nick as the sensible observer who guides the story with passages from the book and then passes the baton off to the dancers. Although the majority of the story is told through dance, the narration provides another element to enhance the beautiful work of the dancers. Early in the ballet there is a moment where narrator Nick and dancer Nick switch places to establish the convention of the piece.”
Cordes is hoping “Gatsby” audiences will be transported into the 1920s and enjoy the storytelling and crafted, high caliber dancing in this production. “It is a wonderful opportunity to escape into another time and place,” he concludes. “It has been a lovely collaboration of local talent and organizations.”
The costume connection
The right costume can go a long way in helping a performer get into character. In the case of “The Great Gatsby,” that means clothes from the 20s – from fringed flapper dresses to top hats.
The Dayton Ballet’s wardrobe supervisor, Lyn Baudendistel, was faced with quite a dilemma when the ballet premiered in Dayton in 2017. The original plan to rent the costumes fell through and she was challenged to come up with 100 costumes for the show.
“Because the choreographer, Ron Cunmningham, wanted the costumes to look like those from a past production, I watched that video several times and then we began building most of the lead women’s costumes and some of the men’s,” she explains. " Because this ballet has a lot of street clothes, I was able to pull suits and pants together for most of the men and some of the kids in the New York City scene.”
She borrowed a number of costumes from Wright State University, a few from Muse Machine. “Price Stores rented the white tuxedo jackets to us for an incredibly low price and the jackets have now been donated to Dayton Ballet for future shows,” Baudendistel explains.
Dancers in “The Great Gatsby” wear between three to six costumes each. “There are an incredible number of quick changes in this show,” Baudendistel says, adding that she has never had another show come even close. She traditionally hires three wardrobe helpers for “The Nutcracker” but has hired four for “Gatsby” because there are more than 50 quick changes happening backstage.
“I put together a four-page spreadsheet of scenes noting who has quick changes in between each scene as well as about how much time there is for each particular quick change,” she explains. " The dancers have to be incredibly physically fit to go from scene-to-scene like they do in this show.”
Cunningham believes the challenge of a story ballet is to make it clear and to tell the story. “The art of storytelling in dance can be quite tricky,” he notes. “There are a lot of wonderful choreographers in America but not a lot of them can tell a story well. You can’t tell every detail. It’s important to get to the guts of the story.
“When that woman who drags her husband to the ballet leaves afterward, I want them both to feel it’s been entertaining and understandable.”
HOW TO GO:
What: “The Great Gatsby” presented by the Dayton Ballet and choreographed by Ron Cunningham
When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 8 and Saturday, April 9 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.
Where: Victoria Theater, 138 N. Main Street, Dayton
Tickets: $5 - $86. Available through the box office at (937) 228-3630 or online at www.daytonperformingarts.org. Senior, teacher and student discounts are available. For more information, visit www.daytonperformingarts.org.
Related programming: A Q&A with Dayton Ballet dancers, along with blues singer Felita LaRock and actor Jamie Cordes, will follow each performance.
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