Before Cole Porter became an internationally celebrated songwriter, he composed a ballet score -- one of the first to use jazz idioms, and one of the earliest to explore specifically American themes.
The Capitol Ballet performances at Lisner Auditorium yesterday and tonight offer a rare chance to hear the Porter music -- once thought lost -- and to see a modern version of the ballet, called "Times Past," by the troupe's co-director Keith Lee, formerly with American Ballet Theatre.
The Cole Porter score had been somewhat mysteriously "missing" for many years, but it was turned up among the composer's effects at Yale, a few years after his death in 1964. Upon its rediscovery, ABT commissioned Lee to make a ballet for it -- he was 19 at the time and it was his first major piece of choreography. Lee subsequently staged "Times Past" in a slightly revised version for the Oakland Ballet in 1975, but the Washington performances will mark its first showing since then.
How Porter came to write this music is a tale of many dimensions, and takes one back to the Parisian artistic ferment of the 1920s, and in particular, to Les Ballets Suedois, an avantgarde company which rivaled the celebrated Diaghiley Ballets Russes in innovative daring during its brief existence, 1920-25. The troupe had been founded by a wealthy Swedish landowner and arts patron, Rolf de Mare, who later was to be the first to bring Josephine Baker to the Parisian stage.
In 1923, the Ballets Suedois mounted a new work called "La Creation du Monde," with a scenario by Blaise Cendrars based on his studies of African religion and folklore. Darius Milhaud wrote the music, using the jazz idioms and instrumentation he'd come to know in visits to this country, and the illustrious painter Fernand Leger designed the decor.
It was Leger who then proposed to De Mare that "Creation" be prefaced by a ballet about America.De Mare asked for suggestions from a young American of his acquaintance, an aspiring painter who was much involved with the Parisian ballet scene. The young man who Gerald Murphy, a wealthy expatriate who hobnobbed with Diaghilev, Picasso, Stravinsky, Hemingway, Cocteau, Dos Passos, and particularly, with his friends, the Scott Fitzgeralds. It was Murphy who introduced Fitzgerald to the enticements of the French Riviera. 'Tender Is the Night" was dedicated to Murphy and his beautiful wife, Sara, who were also models for Dick and Nicole Driver, the protagonists of the novel.
Murphy had another friend, a fellow classmate from Yale and a gifted composer who was also on the loose in Paris at the time -- he was, of course, Cole Porter. The two of them packed off to Venice to work on the ballet for De Mare, and cameup with a lighthearted spoof of the American sucess syndrome they called "Within the Quota." Murphy's scenario (he also did the decor) concerned a Swedish immigrant who arrives in the U.S. and encounters a gallery of stereotypes -- a millionairess, a "coloured gentleman," a cowboy, a puritan, etc. -- and eventually goes to Hollywood to make a movie with "the World's Sweetheart" (Mary Pickford). Porter's rakishly syncopated 18-minute score, orchestrated for the Ballets Suedois production by French composer Charles Koechlin, is full of ragtime and jazz echoes. Murphy created a sensational backdrop from a blow-up of the front page of a mock American newspaper, Hearst style, with nonsensical headlines like "Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic." The ballet, choreographed by Jean Borlin, was premiered at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in October of 1923 and taken on an American tour immediately thereafter.
Lee's "Times Past" preserves one or two characters from the original scenario (not flinching from the realities of the time, Lee converts the "coloured gentleman" into s shoeshine boy, danced in blackface), but updates the era by about a decade or so and turns the story into something of a cartoon murder mystery. The idea is still not far removed from Murphy's -- a kind of theatical souvenir album of bygone character types. Chereographically, Lee makes reference to such relics of pop dance culture as the Charleston, the jitterbug the camel walk, the box-step, the shimmy and the grind.
For the Capitol Ballet production, David McNaughton of the San Francisco Ballet will be on hand as guest artist for the shoeshine boy role. William Bolcom's two-piano realization of the Porter music is perhaps closers to the composer's conception than any of its earlier manifestations. Marcos Paredes' costumes for the ABT production and Oliver Smith's reproduction of Gerald Murphy's backdrop are additional enhancements.