The spirit of jazz

Menlowe Ballet commissions new work set to Dave Brubeck

"A feeling of intense pleasure or joy; ecstasy, bliss, elation."

That's the definition of "rapture," the word Menlowe Ballet has chosen as the title of its upcoming program. Transporting audiences to a state of ecstasy is a tall order for an evening of dance, but the company's artistic leadership is confident the show lives up to its name.

Slated for March 27-29 at the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, "Rapture" is a mixed bill featuring two works by the company's artistic director Michael Lowe -- last season's "Legend of the Seven Suns" and the new "Playing Love" -- alongside the premiere of Reginald Ray Savage's "Bru's Sweet," set to the music of Dave Brubeck.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Savage trained under Katherine Dunham, director of the first African American modern dance company in the United States -- the company Savage later joined as a professional dancer. He founded Savage Jazz Dance Company in Oakland in 1992 and has gone on to establish himself as a dance artist whose work is rooted in the spirit and cultural heritage of jazz music.

This won't be the first time Lowe and Savage have shared a stage; in 2012, as part of Menlowe Ballet's second season, the two choreographers collaborated on a joint program, bringing their companies together to perform both on the Peninsula and in Oakland. This time, Menlowe Ballet has commissioned Savage to create a brand new work. Over the past few months, Savage has been traveling back and forth across the Bay to set "Bru's Sweet" on Menlowe dancers.

At over 6 feet tall with a solid build, a nose piercing and a chunky silver ring adorning every finger, Savage stands out in the ballet studio. When he sits, he's always on the edge of his seat; when he stands, it's hard to focus anywhere else. Flamboyant and expressive by nature, he seems to have found a way to channel that energy into the bodies of the dancers he's working with.

"I'm the kind of person: I'll shake the champagne bottle before I open it," he explained in a recent interview as he perched on a bench outside the Menlowe Ballet studio, waiting for company class to conclude. Suddenly sitting bolt upright, he stuck his pinky finger out, brought his hand to his mouth and pinched his lips together in an expression of prissy concentration.

"I hate drinking champagne like that," he exploded, collapsing into laughter, letting his shoulders slouch. "It's just snotty grapes; you might as well take advantage of it."

Sparkling wine's not a bad metaphor for "Bru's Sweet," a playful, sexy dance that features plenty of bubbly fun, yet tempers the froth with passages of dry wit and melancholy.

With only a few weeks to go before showtime, Savage showed little sign of anxiety during rehearsal. "Yes, yes yes!" he cried as 16 dancers lunged across the studio to a swelling percussion crescendo.

His notes at the end of their first full run-through: "Just stay hot. It's yours. Take it where it needs to go."

In selecting the music of popular jazz composer Dave Brubeck, Savage is consciously evoking the 1950s, an era he described as "Elvis, Chuck Berry, 'Funny Face,' the jazz club scene -- America trying to be free."

"Take Five" isn't part of the score ("I didn't want to do paint-by-numbers Brubeck," Savage explained), but those familiar with the classic 1959 Dave Brubeck Quartet album "Time Out" will hear some familiar tracks.

Also reminiscent of the mid-20th century are the costumes; a designer's sketch featured boat-necked tees, pedal pushers and ballet flats.

Though few of Menlowe Ballet's dancers were Brubeck fans before, Savage said they've warmed quickly to the music. Even Savage himself isn't old enough to have caught the Dave Brubeck Quartet in its heyday, though he did get to meet the jazz great a few years later.

"One of my first big concerts with Katherine Dunham was to dance to Brubeck live in 1978 outside in a big outdoor arena," he remembered, recalling that Dunham had choreographed a dance that involved "wearing flowing robes and reaching to the heavens" as Brubeck played.

"At intermission, he walked into the dressing rooms and asked if we wanted to improvise during the jazz. We said, 'Sure!' We didn't have anything to lose."

Savage has never lost his passion for jazzy improvisation, though he's specific about what he's looking for; it's not just a question of hurling the body through space any old way. The improvisation in "Bru's Sweet," for example, is structured, meaning Savage has given the dancers instructions for the mood and the style of movement he wants to see.

"There's a thin line between fast and sloppy," he said. And while he clearly admires the technical precision of Menlowe Ballet's dancers, Savage's main goal has been to earn their trust and encourage them to take risks in their dancing.

"It's easy for ballet dancers to hide behind technique -- to use it like a shield," he noted. "The trick is to get people to open the door to where the technique becomes human."

Lisa Shiveley, Menlowe Ballet's executive director, described "Bru's Sweet" as an exciting challenge for the company, particularly because of its improvisational passages. Creating movement spontaneously rather than following choreographed steps, Shiveley said, requires that dancers "be both fierce and vulnerable. The risks they took in the studio will translate into a breathless experience for the audience," she predicted.

Those who caught Menlowe Ballet's "Legend" program in the fall will remember Lowe's ethnic ballet, "The Legend of the Seven Suns," a narrative dance adapted from an ancient Mongolian myth, complete with elaborate animal costumes and digital projections. That work will be restaged alongside Lowe's newest work, "Playing Love." The latter is a romantic ballet for 11 dancers that examines the nature of love, from romantic to sensual to mature. The work is set to an orchestral score from Mongolia that features Asian instruments including the "morin khuur" or horsehead fiddle.

Four days before the opening of "Rapture," on Monday, March 23, Menlowe Ballet leaders will attend the 29th annual Izzies, a dance awards ceremony held each year in San Francisco. Named for pioneering American modern dancer Isadora Duncan, the awards are given for outstanding contributions to dance, from choreography and performance to music and design. Menlowe Ballet has been nominated for its 2013 reconstruction of Ronn Guidi's 1961 dance, "Trois Gymnopédies."

For now, the company is focused on polishing the three works on the "Rapture" program. For his part, Savage is confident the dancers will deliver in "Bru's Sweet," largely because he's asking them to be themselves on stage.

"Now it's Menlowe's piece," he said. "I don't want them all coming out in order like 'Swan Lake.'

"And I've never asked them to look like me," he added. "Can you imagine 16 people doing an impression of me?"

He doubled over with laughter again. Eventually, he caught his breath.

"You gotta have a great sense of humor to dance," he concluded, grinning, "or else there might just be something to that 'Black Swan' movie."

What: "Rapture," presented by Menlowe Ballet

Where: Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts, Atherton

When: Friday, March 27-Saturday, March 28, 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 29, 2 p.m.

Cost: $28-$48

Info: Go to menloweballet.org or call 800-595-4849.

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