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‘Swan Lake’ gets a jazzy update at Greater Boston Stage Company

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
‘Swan Lake’ gets a jazzy update at Greater Boston Stage Company
Jackson Jirard and company. PHOTO: Maggie Hall Photography

If Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington had transcended time, space and race to meet for a drink, “Swan Lake in Blue: A Jazz Ballet” would have been the result. Instead, the production was created and composed by Steve Bass and choreographed and directed by Ilyse Robbins, and the world premiere is running at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham through March 1.

Andy McLeavey (Siegfried) and Sara Coombs (Odette). COURTESY PHOTO

Andy McLeavey (Siegfried) and Sara Coombs (Odette). COURTESY PHOTO

Complete with an onstage jazz band and an art deco-inspired set, the show reimagines the classic ballet as a 1940s battle between love and gang power. In this world, a Broadway producer falls for a burlesque dancer who is under the control of a local mobster. We won’t spoil the ending for you, but like the Russian classic it stems from, things get dicey.

“Swan Lake in Blue” maintains its integrity as a narrative dance production, so the story is told primarily through tap, jazz and lyrical dance, though not without help from the expressive ensemble. Protagonist lovebirds Odette (Sara Coombs) and Siegfried (Andy McLeavey) portray the classic, if cookie-cutter, characters to perfection.

But it’s the high-energy ensemble that brings the magic to the production. Jackson Jirard plays Siegfried’s friend and casting assistant Ben Kelly like he was born into the role. Kelly is a comedic character, but Jirard’s expert technique keeps it from veering too far into goofy sidekick territory. His frequent dance partner Maya McClain, part of the teen ensemble, jumps gracefully from eager auditionee to irritated girlfriend to vengeful crowd member as the story progresses.

Jackson Jirard plays the role of Ben Kelly in “Swan Lake in Blue: A Jazz Ballet.” COURTESY PHOTO

Jackson Jirard plays the role of Ben Kelly in “Swan Lake in Blue: A Jazz Ballet.” COURTESY PHOTO

Jazz and tap seem uniquely suited to portray both the joy and romance of the piece and the inherent tragedy of thwarted love. In a confrontation scene between Odette, Siegfried and the mobster (David Visini), the tap choreography reaches its peak with a heart-wrenching illustration of a woman desperate to leave an abusive situation. The mobster controls Odette by forcing her to repeat combinations over and over despite her clear exhaustion. Meanwhile, Siegfried and the mobster grapple in a somehow seamless mix of fight choreography and tap dance battle.

All the while, the score brings modern melancholy to the familiar rhythms through the horn and saxophone melodies. It’s worth noting that Duke Ellington did produce a jazz rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” an early illustration of how well the composer’s work adapts into a jazz score. 

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“Jazz was my first musical love, and I’ve also always loved tap dance,” says Bass in a release. “This piece is ballet at its core — storytelling though dance and instrumental music. … The idea was to have something that looked and sounded much closer to a Broadway musical, but with no words — a jazz ballet.”

The show certainly fits Greater Boston Stage’s mission to reimagine familiar stories. “Swan Lake in Blue” is a new look at Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, and perhaps a more approachable one for a contemporary audience. Clocking in at two hours with an intermission, the piece is shorter than the original and moves quickly through the dramatic plotline. One thing is guaranteed with  “Swan Lake in Blue” — audience members will never be bored.

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