A Jazz Twist on a Classical Favorite :: Steve Bass and Ilyse Robbins on GBSC's 'Swan Lake in Blue'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 7, 2020

So you've seen "Swan Lake," and you love it. Or, you've never seen "Swan Lake," but you have heard about it because it's a classic work of ballet. Or, perhaps, you've sort of heard of it... but don't know anything beyond the title and the fact that it involves ballet dancing.

Let's set the scene with a little background. Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote the music for the ballet, which premiered in 1877 in Moscow. The original dance for the piece was created by Czech choreography Václav Reisinger (also known as Julius Reisinger).

The story, drawn from folklore, is about a young woman named Odette who has been turned into a swan by a sorcerer. When a young prince encounters Odette and she explains her plight, the prince determines to break the spell - through the power of love, of course. It's a mythic story in the mold of many a classic fairy tale.

But now, are you ready to swap our those ballet slippers for a Jazz Age American reboot?

That's the idea behind "Swan Lake in Blue," a jazz ballet by composer Steve Bass, who relocates the story in New York in the 1940s. Odette is now a dancer at a club; she's in thrall not to enchantment, but rather to a mobster. Still, a prince is a prince, love is love, and "Swan Lake in Blue" - with new music and fresh choreography by Ilyse Robbins - is set to take Great Boston Stage Company (where Robbins also serves as associate artistic director) by storm.

EDGE had a chance recently to catch up with Bass and Robbins and learn more about their new spin on a beloved classic.

EDGE: Was "Swan Lake in Blue" something that the two of you devised together from the start, or was it the case that you wrote it, Steve, and then began to work with Ilyse later?

Steve Bass: The latter. So, I actually wrote the music from 2013 — 2016, and I performed it as a concert piece in 2016. However, I hadn't yet gotten the opportunity to see it as a fully staged theatrical production. I started working with Ilyse back in, I'd say, 2018, on some shows at Greater Boston Stage Company, and as we talked I learned that she was a really excellent tapper. I thought it would be kind of a match made in heaven [for us to work on this together].

EDGE: Ilyse, you quite the resume for dance, especially tap — you performed with Gregory Hines.

Ilyse Robbins: I started tapping when I was four, and it was sort of my first love. I went from tap to jazz to modern to hip-hop, and back to tap... that's sort of the way I feel about it. When I was in college Gregory Hines was promoting his movie "Tap," and there was a competition to meet him and dance with him, and I was honored to be the only woman who made it to the finals. I got to dance for him, Savion Glover, and Jimmy Slyde. My piece was "Dancing in the Street."

EDGE: "Swan Lake" is, of course, a much-loved ballet, and jazz and tap are classic American forms of dance. What was the initial spark to bring those things together and create this new version of the familiar story?

Steve Bass: My actual first inspiration to kind of cross genres like this was listening to Duke Ellington's arrangement of "The Nutcracker" from his famous 1960s album called "Three Suites." It's him and Billy Strayhorn arranging all the popular "Nutcracker" pieces for jazz big band with just amazing, incredible orchestration. I was already wanting to do something like that, taking a known classical theme and putting a jazz spin on it, but then I thought it would be even cooler to take that one step further: "Could I do a jazz ballet, where not just the score is re-written, but the dance is re-written, too, and modernized to match up to the music?"

I actually did think about "The Nutcracker," but then I thought, "Why would I go head to head with Ellington?"


Steve Bass: And, also, "The Nutcracker" has been done so many times that I figured it would be just another version that got stuck into the rut. So I thought it would be better to choose something still deeply memorable, but that hasn't really been done in that vein before. I've never heard a jazz version of "Swan Lake," and I figured that's almost as popular and memorable as "Nutcracker," so I just jumped on that and spent basically three years in grad school writing it.

EDGE: So, when you say you're re-writing the music does this mean you are writing whole new pieces that are maybe based to some extent on the original themes, or are you taking the original music and jazzing it up, so to speak?

Steve Bass: I'm actually writing original music. So, basically, I've tried to incorporate the memorable main scenes, but rather than just say, like, "Here's this pas de deux, and I'm going to do it exactly as is, but add a swing feel or add jazz rhythms," it's more like, "Okay, I'm going to take the main theme everyone knows and built that into a whole new piece and a whole new arrangement." So, all the music is brand new and has its own form and places it goes, but it's kind of like quotations every now and then, with echoes of the Tchaikovsky melodies throughout.

EDGE: So you're using anchor points that will let the audience get oriented, and then going where you want to go from there.

Steve Bass: Correct. Exactly.

EDGE: Ilyse, when it comes to the choreography, are you doing the same sort of thing with the dance as Steve is doing with the music?

Ilyse Robbins: I would say that most of the choreography is quite different, but there are one or two pieces that Steve and I sat down and made sure have echoes of the original, so the "Dance of the Little Swans" or the "Dance of the Cygnets" definitely has moments that anyone who knows the ballet will go, "Oh! That's 'Swan Lake.' " And there are a few moments here and there that echo back to the original ballet.

The entire piece is not only tap, but other styles as well — there's salsa-type partnering, and there's contemporary lyrical dance. The tap numbers are really of their own, and I would say the same for the mambo. It's the more lyrical pieces where you really see strains of the ballet.

EDGE: You've also updated the story, taking it to the jazz age so that now it's not a story about a princess under the spell of an evil sorcerer, but rather it's a gangster who is exerting his influence over... sorry, is Odette a showgirl here?

Steve Bass: A burlesque dancer.

EDGE: Is this because dance halls and gangsters are tied in the popular imagination with the jazz age?

Steve Bass: Correct, yes. After writing the music and thinking about the story unfolding to big band jazz, I thought the whole fairy tale [element, with] magic sorcerers and all that, was not really going to line up with swinging big band. So I knew I was going to need to set it in a new place, and definitely a new time period. Once I set that as 1940s New York, I then just tried to literally make as many parallels as possible. So, it still follows the exact structure as the original "Swan Lake," it just that every character [has been updated] so that the sorcerer is now a mob boss, and instead of an actual swan, it's a person in a swan costume at a burlesque club. But it's still kind of the exact same story — just modernized so that it actually fits with the 1940s theme.

EDGE: This sounds like it's going to be so much fun!

Steve Bass I think so!

EDGE: Ilyse, obviously in the 1940s there were not more modern forms of dance that you have had experience with, but did you slip in any influences from, say, hip-hop or modern dance when coming up with the choreography?

Ilyse Robbins: I tried to stay true to the music, so if we're using jazz music I tried to stay true to that time period choreographically. So, tap... tap fits perfectly, because [tap and jazz] were born around the same time. They came of age together. And so did the other movements that sort to make sense with [that time period]. So, we tried to keep it all of one era.

EDGE: So, this re-telling is modern... but modern to a certain point, and without anachronisms.

Steve Bass and Ilyse Robbins, in unison: Right. Yes.

EDGE: How about the modern audience? It was once the case the audiences really knew how to understand a story as told solely through music, or through dance, and didn't need dialogue. And this really is a ballet — there are no spoken or sung exchanges, the whole story is told with music and movement. Are there any concerns that contemporary mainstream audiences might not quite know how to put it all together?

Ilyse Robbins: I'm gonna say yes.


Ilyse Robbins This has been very interesting for us because it is not something that people are used to. I mean, even our artistic director spoke to me straight up — he said, "I don't get it. I don't get dance, I don't get how to understand the ballet." I said, "Well, this is our job: To make it accessible and make it understandable." So, we're gonna see how it goes.

EDGE: How collaborative is the process at this point? Do you both come into the room and work the cast together, or are you handing off to each other and trusting in where the other one is going to go?

Steve Bass: I would say that there's definitely the element of trust there so that when I am not in the room with Ilyse, I trust that she definitely knows my vision for the work. I definitely know where she's taking it. I trust all the decisions that she makes, even if I am not there, so I do feel good about that partnership. And I would say we have spent a lot of weeks together, going through exactly how the narrative is going to unfold, going through the nuances of how the scenes are going to work out, Like you said, [it's a matter of] getting an audience to actually follow along and understand, and not just watch a dance show. It's been very collaborative.

Ilyse Robbins: And then we have the collaboration of the dancers. I have all of the choreography created, and the music is created, but now we get into the room with the dancers and we see how it works. We'll see if it makes sense on their bodies, and their musicality, and their storytelling, and see if something changes in the room. We'll see how that unfolds.

EDGE: Speaking of the dancers, was that something you both undertook, or was it one of those times, Steve, where you said, "Ilyse, I trust you — you take care of that."

Steve Bass: Definitely the latter. I went to the first audition, just because it's exciting to see people dancing to your music and auditioning for your show. So I wanted to just be there as a face, and just to see how the first pool [of potential cast members] came out. But after watching that first audition and seeing how expert Ilyse is at dance, and how confident... again, talk about trust. I told her, "I completely trust the casting choices you're going to make." And when it comes to watching dancer, I don't want to have any input because I'm not the one teaching the choreography, and I want her to be able to work with the best possible people. So I definitely left the casting very much weighed toward what she wanted.

EDGE Ilyse, what were you looking for in the dancers you were casting? Were you looking for a mastery of technique, or was it more wanting a certain sense from a performer — like, "This is someone who really gives the sense of a swan," or, "This is someone who could credibly be a mob boss in the '40s," and the technique was more something you'd trust them to pick up?

Ilyse: Technique and storytelling had to come first. We have a very short rehearsal period, so I knew I need people who have [a mastery of the technique]. Tap is a very specific style. Anyone can learn how to tap — I absolutely believe that — but for this, for the age we're looking for, you're either a tapper or you're not. I needed strong tappers who also had a good handle on jazz style, so I was looking for technique and — I'm sure you'll understand this — that certain something that makes you want to watch someone.

I had some great technical tappers come in who moved well in their feet, but that doesn't [necessarily] help tell the story. I was looking for both strong technique and strong storytelling.

EDGE: So, with those pretty specific skills and capabilities in mind, did you find yourself spoiled for choice with a lot of great people showing up to the auditions, or was it a matter of trying to get lucky enough to find a few unicorns?

Ilyse Robbins: I'm going to say yes and no. It was much easier to find women than men, and for me personally, the people that I tend to work with, many of them are already booked. But it's been exciting. I've met many, many new people through this, some dancers that I have never worked with that I am thrilled that I am getting a chance to work with. But I will say casting men was not as easy as I hoped it would be.

EDGE: In keeping with the traditions of the form, will the program contain a synopsis of the story?

Ilyse Robbins: There will be program notes. Absolutely.

Steve Bass: One hundred percent. The synopsis of the show will be in the program. When you go see the show you should be able to read and know exactly what happens in each scene so that you actually know how to follow the story.

EDGE: What projects do you have coming up beyond this show?

Ilyse Robbins: Steve and I are about to work on "Matilda" at Greater Boston Stage Company in the spring, but we're also hoping to see this have a life after Greater Boston Stage. So we do have a few people coming to see it during its run, to see if it can move elsewhere.

"Swan Lake" runs Feb. 15 - March 1 at Greater Boston Stage Company. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.greaterbostonstage.org/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.