Lots of people have loved the idea of St. Louis Woman, a turn-of-the-century story of African American jet setters who live and work around a racetrack in St. Louis. But no one could quite figure out a way to make it work.
"They originally wanted to make it a movie for Lena Horne," explains Arthur Mitchell, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. "But Lena felt the dialogue was demeaning. That project never got off the boards. Then they did it as a musical with Pearl Bailey."
The musical, with a book adapted by Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps from Bontemps's novel God Sent Sunday, starred an all-black cast, including Bailey and the Nicholas Brothers. Even though it featured Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer classics like "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Had Myself a True Love," "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home," "Legalize My Name," and "A Woman's Prerogative," the show was a flop, running for only 113 performances.
Now, Dance Theatre of Harlem and choreographer Michael Smuin say they've discovered the key to unlock the story's magic: Turn it into a ballet. The world premiere of St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet during this month's Lincoln Center Festival not only represents a meeting of a lot of creative minds, but it reveals a ballet that the Dance Theatre of Harlem is hoping will become a signature piece.
"Everyone has been excited about this project," says Mitchell. "Every time I mention St. Louis Woman, they say, 'Oh yes, I've never seen it, but I know all about it.' Or 'I've heard the music.' It aroused everyone's interest on the creative team," a group that includes a cadre of Tony Award winners: Smuin, costume designer Willa Kim, set designer Tony Walton, and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
"I think the curiosity factor will be strong with audiences, too," says Mitchell. "Some people may have heard about the story. Some people know the music. Some know it's the musical that made Pearl Bailey famous. In terms of bookings, it's selling like crazy just on the name, A Blues Ballet."
Dance Theatre of Harlem will premiere the new ballet on a program with George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, a reflection of the Harlem-based company's connection to the Balanchine legacy. Mitchell founded DTH in 1969, while still a principal dancer with Balanchine's New York City Ballet. A second program during the Festival will feature the company in Balanchine's Serenade, Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, Sir Frederick Ashton's Meditation from Thaïs, and New Bach by the company's resident choreographer, Robert Garland.
Several attempts had been made over the years to resurrect St. Louis Woman in some form, including an opera suite adapted from the original score, and recorded by the New York Philharmonic in 1957. A 1998 staged reading of the musical with a reorchestrated score and starring Vanessa Williams proved to be a hit as part of the Encores! Series at New York's City Center. Another creative team tried to tackle the piece in a 2001 production in Philadelphia.
"There's a good story there. The music is beautiful. But somehow it just never seemed to work [as a full production]," Mitchell says. "But as a ballet, it all seems to work very, very well. When I heard that Mercer and Arlen had made a tape of an 80-piece classical orchestral score of St. Louis Woman, I thought this would be ideal for Dance Theatre of Harlem. It's classical, but it's very classically American. It will allow us to do all the styles within the frame of one ballet."
The story has been reset in 1946 and cut from two-hours-plus down to an hour. A secondary story of superstitions and the power of curses has been eliminated. Dialogue has been replaced by choreography, although three singers will be the vocal alter egos of the main characters at various times throughout the ballet. A tap dance duo has been added to spice up the cakewalk.
"One of the reasons why the show was a flop was its kind of racist approach. We have changed that, certainly" says Smuin, the former artistic director of San Francisco Ballet who now heads his Smuin Ballet in San Francisco. "The story is still in a theme world of gambling, superstition, love, and betrayal, but it's done on a much higher level."
In addition to the main characters from the original musical‹the villainous Biglow and his long-suffering mistress, Lila; Augie, the jockey, and Della, the glamorous but fickle belle of St. Louis‹Smuin has introduced a Devil figure, whose presence is felt throughout the ballet, even though he is invisible to the characters.
"That character is kind of like an interlocutor. He's like a Doctor Death, narrator type," Smuin says.
St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet continues a long relationship between the choreographer and Dance Theatre of Harlem. Smuin works that have come into the company's repertoire over the years include Medea, A Song for Dead Warriors, and Songs of Mahler.
"I wanted someone who was classically based, but also understood how to give St. Louis Woman that theatrical feeling it needs to have," Mitchell says, "because the characters must dance a certain way for this particular piece. When they hear the word 'ballet,' most people think of 19th-century, romantic-style dance. I want to show a theatrical dance grounded in classical technique. I always tell the dancers, 'Yes, I want to see the technique. But I want to see what you bring with that. You must bring the magic when you hit the stage.'"
There are big plans for St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet beyond the Lincoln Center Festival. Touring dates through the end of the 2003-04 season are already being solidified based on word of mouth. Mitchell senses that the piece could become a new signature work for his company, joining such critically acclaimed productions as its version of Firebird and its Creole Giselle. With a little luck, says the artistic director, a slightly expanded version of the new ballet could even help buoy the company's finances with a limited run on Broadway.
"It's a good fit for us," he says. "This isn't just another ballet. It's dance theater. And that's what Dance Theatre of Harlem is about. Our dancers not only are technically proficient, but they have the acting skills to make these characters real. This is a ballet that will bring in the average man on the street as well as the dance audience. I want them all to come."
Karyn D. Collins is an entertainment and features writer for the Asbury Park Press/Gannett-NJ in Neptune, New Jersey.