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Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

Dance-especially jazz ballet-seems an unlikely conduit for John Coltrane’s innovative and affecting music. Nevertheless, Coltrane came alive beneath a glowing full moon at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Through City Ballet of Angeles and its artistic director Robyn Gardenhire, an upscale 1950s Greenwich Village club was recreated for “Behind the Red Door.” In this fantasy setting, originally produced at the Henry Fonda Theatre in 2005, scantily clad female dancers entertained club patrons while the Altman Ensemble played Trane’s mainstream tunes for copasetic ambiance.

The effort was Gardenhire’s attempt to reach both dance-oriented patrons and those unacquainted with the art form through this spirited program that merged traditional ballet with live jazz: In this instance, Coltrane’s compositions from his landmark Giant Steps album. That proved to be a daunting task for both the dancers and the band, which was clearly pushed beyond its normal boundaries. The group, founded by reedist Ralph Gibson in 1995, a cornerstone of LA’s Leimert Park’s thriving jazz scene, had to maintain a reliable cadence for the dancers. It included pianist and musical director Cengiz Yaltkaya, trumpeter Ron Sewer, bassist Mark Boykin and drummer Giovanni Nickens. The troupe, all classically trained and used to rigid choreography, was required to improvise and be connected to the ensemble’s nuances.

Onstage, the players were separated from the dancers. The showgirls were sexy and stimulating, but aside from that allure, lacked dimension. Injected into the production for both dramatic tension and comic relief was a high-flying male dancing scoundrel mostly vying for the affections of the lead showgirl. Additionally, the magician Masyseo filled things out.

As part of the staging, decked out club attendees made their entrances and exits dancing. A seasoned club owner played by Sloan Robinson had the only speaking part. Robinson also showcased her talent with a melancholy song and dance rendition of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is.” That tune and crooner James Love’s performance of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” were the only non-Coltrane numbers performed. “Mr. PC” was a standout along with “Cousin Mary” and “Giant Steps,” all featuring Gibson, Yaltkaya and Nickens in top form.

For the sake of the audience, who the artistic director hopes to educate, a listing of selections or description of the dances performed in the program would have been helpful. Still, Gardenhire’s attempt to fuse jazz and dance was commendable and a positive step in the path of developing a better dialogue between genres.

Originally Published