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The Orpheus Suite
An introduction to Ellington
David Bintley discusses the appeal of the jazz legend
Read about the legend of Orpheus
Read reviews of previous performances
Journalist Duncan Heining talks to the big band leader and composer of The Orpheus Suite
David Bintley on the attraction of jazz
The creator of Take Five talks about his love of jazz
See shots from the Company studios
An overview of the ballet
Read quotes from reviews of previous performances
Meet the characters portrayed in the ballet
Geoffrey Smith looks at Duke Ellington's relationship with dance
The success of earlier work The Nutcracker Sweeties, to Ellington's treatment of Tchaikovsky's famous ballet score, prompted Bintley in 1999 to revisit the the jazz icon's musical treasure chest. With its strong dramatic possibilities, the Ellington-Strayhorn foray into Shakespeare, 'Such Sweet Thunder', was an obvious choice, which Bintley has retitled The Shakespeare Suite. Inspiration for this work came from a very specific source, the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Ellington and Strayhorn began the project following an appearance there in 1956; the Ellington band performed it in Stratford the next year.
For his ballet, Bintley has taken greater imaginative liberties with Ellington's interpretations than he did in The Nutcracker Sweeties. 'Such Sweet Thunder' contains 12 portraits; Bintley has reduced these to seven and added three other pieces from Ellington's output. In addition, the characters that Ellington and Strayhorn envisioned as subjects have occasionally been supplanted by others.
However, the ballet begins as the original score does, with 'Such Sweet Thunder', which serves as an overture. Though Ellington said it represents 'the sweet and swinging, very convincing story' by which Othello won Desdemona's hand, it can also express musical communication, with the brass emoting in plunger mutes. 'Up and Down, Up and Down' comes next, which Ellington, following Shakespeare, associated with the romantic confusion of A Midsummer Night's Dream; but Bintley uses the music to depict the squabbles of Petruchio and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.
'The Telecasters' sets the scene for another ill-assorted courtship, when Richard III boldly woos Lady Anne after causing the death of her husband and father-in-law. Macbeth appears to the strains of 'Tymperturbably Blue', a percussion feature Ellington wrote in 1959. His Liberian Suite dates from 1947, and Bintley has borrowed its 'Dance No.2' to accompany the unlikely couple of Titania and Bottom (in his role as ass) from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
One of Ellington's earliest masterpieces, 'Black and Tan Fantasy', accompanies the tragic union of Othello and Desdemona. For the ill-fated liaison of Romeo and Juliet, Bintley uses the lovely melody Billy Strayhorn intended for them, 'Star-Crossed Lovers'. 'Madness in Great Ones' is an Ellingtonian tour de force, evoking Hamlet's feigned insanity with fractured rhythms and a stratospheric trumpet that ultimately soars from view. 'Half the Fun' supplies a rich finale; for Ellington it conjured up the romantic world of Antony and Cleopatra. And the cast bids a swinging farewell with 'Circle of Fourths', which, according to Ellington, refers to Shakespeare's fourfold achievement in tragedy, history, comedy and poetry.
Bintley's Shakespeare Suite was created as an appropriately swinging centenary tribute to Duke Ellington himself, embodying the wit, imagination and joy that marked everything he did - and the spirit of the dance from which he drew lifelong inspiration.
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