"Special" was a word uttered several times by participants in The Art of Jazz to describe their recent performances at The Marigny Opera House. Since its founding two years ago, The Marigny Opera Ballet has featured live music in its performances, a rarity considering only major dance companies such as The New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet work with live music. Director Dave Hurlbert believes musicians are essential in New Orleans and says recordings were never an option.
Hurlbert, founder of both the performing arts venue and its dance company, commissioned local musicians and dancers to create three pieces for Art of Jazz. The originality and exuberance of the performances were testimony to the importance of the license granted the artists. The musicians and dancers created a dialogue intertwining melodies and rhythms with movement. Initially, Hurlbert tried putting a 1906 Steinway grand piano onstage so the dances could swirl around it.
The first piece, Dance of the Dreamers, was written by composer and pianist Lawrence Sieberth. His piece's musical mood shifted through five emotional movements, starting with a simple bass line and progressing into snazzy '50s jazz, as Sieberth flung sheets of music off the piano onto the floor. The dancers enacted each melody line with precise, articulated movements and also captured unexpected elements of the music.
"Combining music with dance is a mutually elevating process," Sieberth said.
Sieberth began working on the score last summer and brought concepts to choreographer Barbara Hayley for collaboration and to observe dancers improvising during rehearsals.
"The poem, the painting allows for a kinesthetic reaction," Hayley said.
Rising Sun Blues featured a romantic and playful pas de deux choreographed by Nikki Hefko, artistic director of the New Orleans School of Ballet, and performed by Lauren Guynes and Joshua Bell. Cellist Helen Gillet composed the music and performed with tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Rex Gregory and drummer Doug Garrison. The musicians faced the stage and incorporated improvisations.
The final piece, Wary Heat, featured sensual and daring choreography by Brazilian Diogo de Lima. The jazz trio Nutria (Byron Asher, Trey Boudreaux and Sean Myers) joined the dancers onstage with clarinet, saxophone, acoustic bass and drums.
"It was revealing to have an artist from a different discipline interpret our composition and elaborate on its meaning," Boudreaux said.
The intimate space of the Marigny Opera House, a church constructed in 1853, has fine acoustics. Its altar is draped with heavy curtains and bathed in mauve lighting.
Marigny Opera Ballet features four outstanding dancers in their second season with the company, Kellis McSparrin Oldenburg, Gretchen Erickson, John Bozeman and Ashlie Russell. Bell, Guynes and Christian Delery joined the ballet in August. Rehearsal director Maya Taylor has danced in Europe and New York City, including with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, yet she has rarely performed with live music, an experience she says is "something special."