Ballet and jazz are not natural bedfellows. Ballet originated among the nobles of Italy and, later, the queens and kings of France. It is a Western (white), aristocratic art form, and the prevailing socio-cultural milieu from which it arose between the 15th and 17th centuries permeates the vocabulary, the music, the stories, the costumes, and the etiquette. In short, classical ballet cannot be separated, truly, from its beginnings.
Interestingly, however, ballet as a form of dance training is arguably unrivaled in its ability to equip the body for the rigors of many forms of Western dance. It also provides a rich vocabulary of steps from which to choreograph. Because of these qualities, ballet has not become a cultural anathema. As modern dance did so well in the early 20th century, today ballet frequently is used by choreographers to reflect or even rebuke aspects of culture.
“a singin’ slave is a happy slave”
Jazz, in counter-distinction to ballet, arose not from the economically insulated but from the exceedingly exploited. Starting in 1619 and going well into the 1800s, the work songs, spiritual songs, healing songs, and fertility songs played a functional role in the lives of African and West Indies slaves. These songs and the African polyrhythms and vocal expressivity (such as “portamento” or the gliding from one note to another) – musical expressions of oppression and injustice – are the early threads that would later come together to create much of the fabric of American music. Blues, Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop…these all share a common genesis.
That classical ballet borrowed anything from jazz music can best be attributed to an utterly broke, anti-Establishment, anti- Communist, Russian emigre and emerging choreographer who made his way to the United States in 1933 through the endowment of a rich visionary arts supporter, Lincoln Kirstein. That emigre was George Balanchine. It was Balanchine, considered the father of American ballet, who merged Old World with New World — the pomp of his Russian-European refinement with the raw energy of his new home.
The spark for this merging may have been jazz, which he would have heard in Paris in the 1920s. Balanchine’s partnerships with Igor Stravinsky and other musicians “bitten by the jazz bug,” plus his early involvement in Hollywood and Broadway, infused his lifework with the syncopation, alacrity, wit, and sense of “cool” that are characteristic of jazz music.
In my opinion, it is difficult to estimate the complete influence of jazz on ballet as it exists today. However, the fact that jazz had far-reaching influence on 20th century symphonic, modern and pop music—the music of contemporary ballet choreographers—as well as on choreographers like Balanchine and others who would come after him (Jerome Robbins, Robert Joffrey, and Lar Lubovitch, for example) suggests that the impact of jazz music on the world of ballet may be profound indeed.
Alicia Lauman, Artistic Director
Ballet, Jazz, and Beer audiences will get to enjoy the unique opportunity of seeing what happens when you combine classic jazz music with ballet, contemporary, post-modern and vernacular jazz dance.
Kicking the season off is the 3rd in our annual Ballet and Beer series celebrating the importance of Jazz music, an American gem, through dance, poetry, music, and song. Premiers of new works from three local choreographers and artistic director, Alicia Laumann, will be accompanied by a band of Fort Collins’ most talented jazz musicians lead by historian and saxophonist, Dave Lunn. The evening will take place at the beautiful and unique Block One Event Center in Downtown Fort Collins.
Tickets include one 40th Anniversary Beer brewed specially for the occasion in partnership with The Gilded Goat!