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In This Case, Some Like It Less Hot

Donald Byrd's new work is steeped in Duke Ellington, but two presenters have deemed a portion too racy.

February 18, 2001|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

Donald Byrd can't seem to get enough of Duke Ellington. The highly regarded choreographer has already done a version of "The Nutcracker" using the colorful Ellington arrangement. And now he's created a new three-movement work--"In a Different Light: Duke Ellington"--to a score that assembles Ellington music ranging over five decades.

"I think I'm drawn to Ellington for the same reason I'm drawn to jazz," Byrd says. "Because of the kind of creative thinking that gets realized in the music. I'm fascinated by how the lives of jazz artists get played out in their music; they're complex people who create complex music. With Ellington there's the popular, melodic side that's so accessible. But there's also a challenging side too, filled with dissonance."

Donald Byrd/The Group will give "In a Different Light: Duke Ellington" its Los Angeles premiere--with a slight caveat--on Saturday at El Camino College's Marsee Auditorium in Torrance. The caveat traces to the fact that a different version of the first movement, originally titled "The Shack," was presented last summer at downtown's California Plaza. The complete work to be presented at Marsee includes a different first movement, "Not The Shack."

Why the shift? "The reason it has that title," says Byrd with a chuckle, "is because Lincoln Center Out of Doors, which was one of the commissioners of the work, said, 'You can't do "The Shack" as part of the program when you do it here.' The contract they gave me said basically that it would be a work in three parts, and one of them will not be 'The Shack.' So 'Not The Shack' seemed like a good title to me. It's a reference to what's not there, but not in terms of theme or subject matter."

Which immediately raises the question of what is it that's not there, if it's not a change in theme or subject matter?

"A lot of it has to do with the nature of the movement," Byrd says. "It's risque. Basically [what's going on in that part is] a burlesque show, and the sexual display in it is provocative. At one point the dancers strap on sexual accouterments and so forth. As I said, it's a burlesque show, so it's about being sexually provocative, and it just kind of raises issues that communities sometimes don't want to deal with.

"When I discussed it with El Camino, [which is] among the work's commissioners, they didn't exactly jump with enthusiasm about doing 'The Shack' in that form. So I told them I would give them the 'Not The Shack' version. Of course I wouldn't have done that if I didn't think it works."

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Still, it's hard not to wonder about the change, especially since the movement already has been performed in Los Angeles. (Times critic Lewis Segal called it "a pithy reminder of the obsession with body parts in this culture," but, he continued, it "ultimately betrayed its best ideas by staying at one level of parodistic overkill, never developing its collection of cliches beyond the obvious.")

Tim Van Leer, executive director of El Camino College Center for the Arts, makes a distinction about the context of that performance. "[It] was done as a special project at California Plaza as part of their community discussion series. They did the presentation and then had Donald stay afterward for a talk-back session, looking at some specific kinds of performances that were controversial in nature, and asking the audience what they thought."

At El Camino, Van Leer says, the concern was that the erotic nature of "The Shack" might undercut the impact of the complete work, especially in light of the way the college viewed the commission.

"We wanted everyone to look at the Ellington as a celebratory piece," he explains. "We didn't want people to get bogged down in one section and have it overshadow their thoughts about it. I also felt we wanted to have the piece available to everyone, rather than have to put 'for mature audiences' in the ads or the press releases."

Given the fact that "Not The Shack" has also been included in other cities on the "In a Different Light" tour, Byrd sounds a bit wistful when he describes the musical difference between the two versions.

"My original concept [for the first movement]," he says, "was to use the Ellington pieces in arrangements by someone else other than Ellington--a band called Sex Mob--to bring a kind of raunchy approach to the music. So the sound of it is very different from 'Not The Shack,' which consists mostly of [recordings by Ellington] that he wrote for his first band in the late '20s and early '30s."

As much as Byrd liked the contrast in styles, he's also not entirely unhappy about having a version that keeps its focus on Ellington's music as it was performed by him. The music, after all, was the inspiration for "In a Different Light."

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