Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dancer's friendship with composer Previn brings new dance - and the dancer - to stage in Columbia

This week a new dance set to the music of Andre Previn and a full concert of his music will be seen and heard in Columbia. So what does  the composer, conductor, musician, and close associate of Hollywood, have to do with a city in the middle of South Carolina?

Kyra Strasberg, (top) a former principal ballerina with the Boston Ballet, Columbia native and USC dance instructor, met Previn through a mutual friend several years and struck up a friendship.

Early last year she attended a concert by Previn, left, and violinist Joan Kwuon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they played one piece she was very taken with.

“It was this little ditty- ‘Tango Song and Dance,’” Strasberg said. “I asked if he’d mind if I had someone work on a dance for it and he said, ‘Not at all darling.’”

The result is “If At First We Dreaqm” choreographed by Thaddeus Davis, who also teaches at USC. It will feature Strasberg in her first performance since she retired in 2000 after 15 years with the Boston Ballet. The piece has its premiere Friday.

Early in the process Strasberg connected the university school of music and Thursday it will do a full concert of Previn music including “Tango Song and Dance” played by USC faculty members violinist William Terwilliger and pianist Marina Lomazov. (For the dance performance the music will be played by Ashley Horvat, associate concertmaster of the S.C. Philharmonic and pianist Rosemarie Suniga, a graduate student at USC. Previn wrote the 2001 piece for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, to whom he was married from 2002 to 2006. The two continue to work together.)

The original plan was for Previn, who has scored films, won Academy Awards, been music director of the London Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, to attend, but a conflict arose and he has engagements in Japan this week.

“The whole idea was to get him here, but it just didn’t work out,” said Susan Anderson, USC dance program director.

Still, this year marks Previn’s 80th birthday and a number of concerts in his honor are taking place.

 “If At First We Dream” has a strong theatrical and narrative drive, Davis said. In it, Strasberg fills the role of the more experienced woman to a large company of younger women engaged in a dance of possible love with three men.

“There’s more pure theater pushing the piece along,” Davis said. In addition, the dance will have sets and the potential of having some set pieces directed him into a more theatrical approach, Davis added.

“Thaddeus is really, really good at doing really, really diverse contemporary choreography,” Anderson said.
And the dance could have a life beyond USC.
“We’ll get (Previn) a video of it and when he sees what Thaddeus has done with the piece, he’ll be interested,” Strasberg said. 

The others she’s interested in seeing her dance are her daughters who were born after she retired.
“More than anything else I want them to see it,” she said. “And I forgot how much I liked to dance. But it’s a lot different now – a lot more free.”

“If At First We Dream” is part of a performance that includes a new ballet by Luis Dominguez, artistic director of the Lexington (Kentucky) Ballet set to Bach cello suites and George Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade.” 

The night before the dance 50 years of Previn’s music will be on center state. The concert ranging from contemporary classical to jazz launches the Chamber Innovista concert series at the USC School of Music.

The Trio for Oboe Bassoon and Piano from 1994 starts the concert and several jazz pieces from the 1950s wrap it up. In the middle is the 2000 piece for vocal and flute “The Giraffes Go to Hamburg” about a pair of giraffes taken from Africa to a German zoo, inspired by and set to a passage from the book Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen.
There’s even a piece for nothing but brass.

Among the performers are Peter Kolkay, bassoon, pianists Lynn Kompass, mezzo-soprano Janet Hopkins, (right) flautist Jennifer Parker-Harley and trumpeter Dick Goodwin.

“The way the program was selected was very simple – put a call out to faculty who would be interested and available,” said series organizer Joseph Eller, “then see what Previn wrote for instruments that we had available and go from there.”

More about Previn
Born in Germany, Previn and his family fled the rise of the Nazis in the late 1930s and settled in Los Angeles.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s he drew attention for his film score arrangements and scores for the movies “Elmer Gantry,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Painter Your Wagon” and Gigi,” for which he won one of his four Academy Awards.

Previn has been music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Starting in the ‘50s, Previn toured and recorded as a jazz player. With drummer Shelley Manne and bass player Leroy Vinegar, he recorded the first jazz version of the score for “My Fair Lady” which was the first jazz album to sell a million copies. He began playing and recording jazz again a few years ago.

Previn’s 10 Grammy Awards are for everything from a jazz recording to chamber and choral music and movie soundtracks. 

He wrote the operas “A Streetcar Named Desire,” from 1997, and “Brief Encounters” which premiered in May this year.

He’s been married five times, mostly to high-profile women including jazz singer Betty Bennett, composer and musician Dory Langdon, actress Mia Farrow. (Pictured with Mutter.)

USC dance, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6 and Saturday, Nov. 7. Koger Center. $16. (803) 251-2222.
Chamber Innovista, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5. USC School of Music.  $15 or $50 for the series of four concerts. (803) 777-4280

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