Duke!, a collaboration between New York City Ballet and Jazz at Lincoln Center, commemorates the unparalleled contribution to American music by Edward "Duke" Ellington, and was first presented to honor the 100th Anniversary of his birth. Danced before an on-stage orchestra, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Duke! is three short ballets by three different choreographers; the connecting thread is provided not only by the composer but by the work's overall design. The first movement, "Rockin' in Rhythm," by Robert La Fosse, is a tribute to the Lindy-hop and Forties swing dancing. It includes a bevy of bebopping couples and a dazzling tap duet. Garth Fagan's second movement, "Ellington Elation," for two couples and an ensemble of 10, features the choreographer's signature movements; long, off-kilter balances, hang-in-the-air leaps and quick, dramatic lifts. "Blossom Got Kissed," Susan Stroman's closing piece, tells the story of Blossom, a befuddled ballerina with no rhythm (dressed in a pale blue Degas tutu), six flappers in red, their black-suited hipster boyfriends, and the transforming power of a kiss (when it's bestowed by the orchestra's triangle player).
Edward Kennedy ("Duke") Ellington (1899-1974) was the most prolific composer of the 20th century with respect to both the number of compositions and the variety of forms. His development was one of the most spectacular in the history of music, underscored by more than 50 years of sustained achievement as an artist and an entertainer. He is considered by many to be America's greatest jazz composer, bandleader and recording artist. The extent of Ellington's innovations helped to redefine the various forms in which he worked. He synthesized many of the elements of American music — the minstrel song, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley tunes, the blues and American appropriations of the European music tradition — into a consistent style which, though technically complex, had a unique directness and simplicity of expression. Ellington's first great achievements came in the three-minute song form, and he later wrote music for all kinds of settings: the ballroom, the comedy stage, the nightclub, the movie house, the theater, the concert hall and the cathedral. His blues writing resulted in new conceptions of form, harmony and melody, and he became the master of the romantic ballad and created numerous works that featured the great soloists in his jazz orchestra.
Duke Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899. He studied piano from age seven and was influenced by stride piano masters including James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Fats Waller. By 1923, he had moved to New York City and had his own band, the Washingtonians. He later formed the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which by 1930 had grown to include 12 musicians and achieved national prominence through radio broadcasts, recordings and film appearances. By the early 1940's, Ellington experimented with longer forms, and his orchestra toured the U.S. and Europe extensively. In 1943 Ellington inaugurated a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall with the premiere of Black, Brown and Beige. He continued to expand the scope of his compositions and his activities as a bandleader throughout his life. His international tours became increasingly frequent and successful; his travel experiences served as the inspiration for his many works about people, places and trains. He wrote nearly 2,000 compositions before his death in 1974.
Robert La Fosse is a a former Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre (1977-86) and New York City Ballet Principal Dancer. He was born in Beaumont, Texas, and trained both in Texas and New York City. His enormous repertory included leading roles in many full-length ballets such as Giselle, La Sylphide, Coppélia, Swan Lake, and Romeo and Juliet. At New York City Ballet, he danced much of the Balanchine, Robbins and Martins repertoire. He has also starred in Broadway productions of Bob Fosse's Dancin' and Jerome Robbins' Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award nomination. Mr. La Fosse's first choreographic work, a pas de deux called Rappacini's Daughter was created in 1985 for "Mikhail Baryshnikov and Company's" tour. He has also choreographed for the School of American Ballet, the Guggenheim Museum's "Works in Progress" series, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, the Metropolitan Opera, the Bavarian State Opera Ballet and Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo. He has choreographed many pieces for New York City Ballet, including Woodland Sketches (1988, American Music Festival), Waltz Trilogy (1991), I Have My Own Room (1992, The Diamond Project I), and Danses de Cour (1994, The Diamond Project II). Mr. La Fosse has received a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts and a Mae L. Wien award for choregraphy.
Garth Fagan, founder and choreographer of Garth Fagan Dance, has been called "a true original" and "one of the great reformers of American dance." His singular dance language draws on many sources: the sense of weight in modern dance, the torso-centered movement and energy of Afro-Caribbean dance, the speed and precision of ballet, and the rule-breaking experimentation of the post-moderns. Mr. Fagan, who has also choreographed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the José Limon Company, has done extensive work for theater. His path-breaking choreography for The Lion King (1997) won the 1998 Tony Award for Best Choreography, the 1998 Drama Desk Award, the 1998 Outer Critics' Circle Award and the 1998 Astaire Award. Other noted theater pieces include the first fully staged production of Duke Ellington's street opera, Queenie Pie, at the Kennedy Center (1986) and the opening production of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival's Shakespeare marathon: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1988). He has received a number of awards, including the Dance Magazine award for "significant contribution to dance during a distinguished career" and the Bessie Award for Sustained Achievement. In 1996 he was one of only 25 Americans to receive the title "Fullbright 50th Anniversary Distinguished Fellow." A native of Jamaica, Mr. Fagan is a Distinguished University Professor of the State University of New York and teaches at the State University of New York at Brockport. Duke! is Mr. Fagan's first work for New York City Ballet.
Susan Stroman, who lives in New York City, is an award winning stage and television choreographer. Among her noted works are Showboat, which received the Tony Award, Crazy for You (Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics' Circle Award, the Laurence Olivier Award for London's West End production), and the Royal National Theatre's production of Oklahoma (Laurence Olivier Award), Big and Steel Pier. Ms. Stroman's off-Broadway credits include And the World Goes 'Round, Liza -- Stepping Out at Radio City Music Hall, an HBO presentation, Flora, the Red Menace, Madison Square Garden's A Christmas Carol and Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, which she co-conceived and choreographed for PBS. Duke! is Ms. Stroman's first work for New York City Ballet.