Elvis Presley created colossal controversy while he lived. And now, more than 10 years after his death, the "King" is causing more controversy through a one-act ballet based on his life.
"Concerto for Elvis" will be given its premiere tonight at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach--providing that the collaborators iron out their pervasive doubts about each other's creative abilities.
"Elvis Presley in ballet isn't exactly what you call the most easy thing," admits composer Ben Weisman, the impetus behind this project. "You just can't get Elvis to prance around and make it work."
Weisman looks on nervously as choreographer and former Joffrey Ballet virtuosa Ann Marie De Angelo drills 17 classically trained dancers of the Long Beach Ballet in the subtleties of break-dancing. She admonishes the figures playing different components of Presley iconography--the sex symbol, the frustrated artist, the momma's boy--to "think gravity and not thrust your crotch out on pointe."
"Of course, I'm sweating," says Weisman. "We are all challenged by this experimentation. But if I didn't believe we could make a tribute to Elvis in a classical way, I would have never written 'A Concerto for Elvis' in the first place."
Weisman, who says he "learned to love music" while listening to the cantor of his Lower East Side synagogue, trained with jazz great Teddy Wilson during the Big Band era and eventually wrote 57 Presley songs. They include "Follow That Dream," "Wooden Heart," "It Won't Be Long," "Spinout," "Clambake," "Fun in Acapulco," "Rock-a-Hula Baby" and "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad."
One way of coping with what Weisman describes as "the painful sense of loss we felt when we lost Elvis" was to take tunes that he wrote for Presley's "King Creole" and "Wild in the Country" films and chart out melodic lines representing periods in Presley's life.
He says that he found "a romantic movement from Presley's years with his mom and pop ("As Long as I Have You"), a sensualistic movement ("Crawfish") and then the last sequence of confusion and frustration ("I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell")."
When Weisman presented the "Concerto" to David Wilcox, artistic director of Long Beach Ballet, De Angelo was suggested as the ideal choreographer. "We chose Ann Marie because she seemed both experienced and contemporary in classical dance," Wilcox says.
But, midway through the rehearsal period, De Angelo, 35, has her doubts. After two years of leading her own company, she says she is used to "working in a more professional setting" than the Long Beach Ballet provides.
"I have walked into a new situation," she muses. "It's with dancers I haven't hand-selected myself. I'm unfamiliar with their work habits and with the way they perform. But I'll say this much for them, they're enthusiastic even if they do lack concentration."
De Angelo also admits to feeling "uninspired" by Weisman's symphonic score--a fact she finds deeply "troubling" considering her unabashed reliance on music for setting movement. ("I think that 90% of the success of any dance is the music," she explains.)
De Angelo was hoping to use Presley's real songs and movie clips in the ballet. 'If this were my gig, I'd go a lot further," she emphasizes. "It would be a lot less tasteful. I would take more risks.
"If I were coming to see this piece, I would absolutely expect to hear or see Elvis on stage. But Ben wanted a classical setting to best project his own music; using 'Love Me Tender' was not an option."
Weisman says he steered away from Presley recordings because he wanted to "go back to my first dream, which was to write classics. I always felt that I was a much stronger classical writer than a song writer. Writing for Presley was something I did to make a living."
According to discussions with six dancers, De Angelo's perfectionism and spirit of experiment endeared her to the company but exacerbated company dissatisfaction with Wilcox. "We are being asked to dance a way we love but have not been trained to," says dancer Patricia Gaines.
"David Wilcox has not compensated us for the extra rehearsal time and that's putting a strain on our morale. I feel, and I think a lot of people would agree with me, that having Ann Marie shows how much more creative and responsible a director she is than Wilcox."
Wilcox plays down rumors of company unrest. "The same two or three people always complain. We have had a bad flu going around and the dancers have wanted more time off than I wanted to give them.
"Part of the problem is that I have not been spending as much time with the dancers as I usually do. Some dancers are not disciplined enough to see that just because we're a ballet company doesn't mean we have to stay traditional."
How can De Angelo immerse herself in such an ambitious, difficult and dissension-filled project?
"I'm a rebel," she answers, adding that she "loves a controversy" and has decided to embrace the complexity of her role and "learn creatively from it" rather than letting it intimidate her.
"Ben wrote this music as a gift to someone he once loved," she says. "And that is moving and inspiring. He is a link to a legend and even though I never really liked or knew Presley--he isn't really my generation--I've learned about him and have learned something about my own craft, too.
"I wanted to make a ballet about the difference between the image and the man," she continues, "--how the man was destroyed by his image . . . I have a tendency to be a little self-destructive myself. I have had problems dealing with my own identity and learning how to accept myself and like myself.
"When we, as a group, grasp this difference between the image and the man, we'll have grasped that in ourselves. We have two weeks to figure it out. I think, judging by the dancers' ability to overcome the problems in the company, that we will figure it out. And when we do it, the work will have an integrity which will speak for itself."