The Music Behind the Dance

Classic Arts Features   The Music Behind the Dance
Carl Cunningham takes us through the powerful music that frames Tales of Texas.

There are innumerable tales to be told about Texas, not the least because its high, wide landscape has encompassed such an adventurous history. Many of them are told in music, giving Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch an equally wide variety of musical resources to draw upon in his first commissioned three-act work for Houston Ballet.

Although Tales of Texas is an evening-length production, it is really three tales, each with its own musical environment accompanying the dance works onstage. For Big Sky, Welch appropriately chose the high, wide-horizoned music of Aaron Copland. "His music is totally American," the choreographer asserts. "Nothing says 'America' to me more than Copland." (But with a sly smile, the Australian-born Welch admits that it also reminds him of his homeland‹"something large‹a huge continent of sweeping landscapes.")

Welch employs excerpts from two Copland ballet scores, the "Open Prairie" and "Gun Battle" scenes from Billy the Kid and the "Corral Nocturne" from Rodeo, as the curtain goes up on Big Sky, his first tale of Texas. But most of his new work is based upon Copland's introspective radio-play music, "Quiet City," and the stirring, patriotic 1941 brass chorale, "Fanfare for the Common Man."

"'Quiet City' was always going to be the heart of Big Sky," he says of this tale about the hardships faced by early settlers in Texas. Copland wrote "Quiet City" in 1939 for a radio play about a liberal Jewish businessman seeking to immerse his cultural-religious heritage in the secular urban environment surrounding him. In Welch's ballet, it becomes a tale of 19th-century immigrants from a cold, wet European environment adapting to the realities of a harsh and very different Texas landscape in their personal search for a Promised Land.

Welch beams with enthusiasm when he talks about Cline Time, his second Texas tale, set to the music of country-western singer Patsy Cline. "Australia has a lot of country-western dancing and country-western music, so I saw and heard it when I was growing up, though my generation wasn't that caught up in it. When I came here for the first time, I went to a big C&W bar and I fell in love with the romance and formalities of asking someone to dance, then taking them out onto the dance floor. And with the fact that it's structured but everyone has freedom within that structure. Then saying 'thank you' at the end of the dance, and the floor clearing‹there was something very balletic about it, very mysterious. And I immediately knew I wanted to choreograph a ballet using that genre.

"The one person whose music kept grabbing me every time was Patsy Cline," he continues. "So, it seemed inevitable that she needed to be the person whose music this ballet was set to."

Welch describes Cline Time as "an abstract ballet set in a kind of imaginary bar, with a lot of heartbroken women . . . lamenting men." His description brings to mind "Too Many Secrets," Cline's song about a woman's two-timing lover. "Yes, that's one of them," Welch says with a laugh. "There are lots of great Patsy songs; the funny thing was not having too many." In the end, Welch limited himself to eight songs by the celebrated singer from the Shenandoah Valley whose silken, throaty voice won her a big break on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Show in 1957 and sent her recordings to the top of the country music charts in 1962.

Tragically, Cline's life ended at age 30 in a plane crash the following year, but her recordings maintain her reputation as one of the greatest country music singers of all time. You'll hear part of her legacy in "Walkin' After Midnight," "Sweet Dreams" and "Just a Closer Walk with You," among others.

Welch is especially pleased with the 50-minute commissioned score that composer Matthew Pierce wrote for Pecos, the third ballet, which tells the legend of Pecos Bill. The choreographer was strongly attracted to the Brooklyn-born composer/violinist's music when he heard two of the numerous scores Pierce had written for major ballet companies throughout the United States.

Because Pierce's music is ingrained with the same vibrant beat his great-grandfather, Tennessee soybean farmer Johnny Pierce, employed to gain fame as a Depression-era bluegrass musician, it fit hand-in-glove with Welch's scenario of the mythical boy who fell out of a covered wagon crossing the Pecos River, was raised by a motherly coyote, and later fell in love with the bold, daring Texas cowgirl, Slue-foot Sue.

Pierce tells of painting his score with musical sounds evoking the West Texas landscape: chirping crickets, starry nights, and above all, the distant howl of coyotes. And there are snippets of some historic folksongs woven into the fabric of a hoe-down sequence in the ballet: "Happy Trails," "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad," and, of course, "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Deep in the Heart of Texas."

Nevertheless, Pierce warns that his musical score also has its moments of high drama and "a dark ending," thanks to the nasty temper of a bronco named Widowmaker. But you'll find that out for yourself when the curtain comes down on this Texas tale.

Recommended Reading: