I love this piece. Like all of Dexter’s performances, I get a strong impression that he’s not just showing me the attitude he’s trying to evoke with his dancing, he’s actually living it. But there’s more to it than that. Here we’ve got a dance that blurs the lines between jazz and blues solo movement, managing to simultaneously be both. And it looks so effortless! However, Dexter’s interview makes it clear just how much research and forethought it takes to make something so complex seem so easy.
What did you want to express with this choreography?
A lightheartedness expressed through dance. Simple but expressive movements that complement the music. The song has an effortlessness to it in the sense that it isn’t too heavy on the emotional spectrum. I wanted to convey an uplifting and inspired energy in my performance. My reaction to Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty” (the 1960 version from the Unknown Sessions album) was that if felt like a “stroll.” There’s also a narrative quality to it if you listen to the instrumentation as well as the chord and melody changes. It’s as if Duke Ellington and his band are taking us on an adventure, with the different instruments telling us various anecdotes. With all that in mind, my interpretation of this was a Sunday stroll and on the way being inspired by my surroundings, by watching people, by life, and eventually by meeting my muse, the “Black Beauty.”
Why did you choose the song for the piece?
I was in Toronto, Canada for a workshop I was teaching in November of 2013. During that time, the annual Toronto Lindy Hop Cabaret was also happening. My friend Brooke Filsinger (who organized my workshop and who’s also involved with the Toronto Lindy Hop scene) asked if I wanted to perform my Hound Dog Blues routine, a last-minute addition to the cabaret’s performing roster. I told Brooke that I wanted to perform something new. But I only had a few days to come up with a new performance piece.
I went through my music collection and, being a fan of Duke Ellington’s music, found something that inspired me. I chose “Black Beauty” primarily because of its feeling. I’ve mentioned this before in prior interviews, but I also choose songs based on their performance quality. I sensed a story in this song and it inspired me to come up with a story of a guy on a stroll…and something wonderful happens to him! I should also mention that since I was being introduced as a Blues dance instructor and performer at a Lindy Hop cabaret, I wanted a song where I could apply some Blues movement using a jazz song. I thought “Black Beauty” would be a good bridge for that.
In researching the history of this song, I found that “Black Beauty” is not without reference to the Blues. The song itself is described as having a “bluesy, somber sound.” Despite the lighthearted feeling of the music, “Black Beauty” is actually Duke Ellington’s elegy for Florence Mills, an African-American cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian who became well-known and loved in vaudeville and Broadway performances in the 1920s. She received international success and acclaim for the show Blackbirds, but died at the early age of 32 from tuberculosis and other complications, a result of her exhaustion from performing the show more than 250 times. Listening to the song, you can sense that it is Duke’s touching tribute to the life of the lovely wide-eyed performer and entertainer who inspired and brought happiness to her audiences.
What other dances influenced or inspired this one?
At the time I was choreographing this piece, I was thinking about my character. Having the idea for a “stroll,” I wanted a character whose movements would fit well with the story and the music. I’ve always been inspired by Gene Kelly’s dancing – the way he engages his audience as he moves across the stage in a carefree and expressive way. So, I decided I wanted to have that quality to my character and performance.
Here’s something that’s also interesting. Upon seeing my performance, my friend Jody Glanzer from Ottawa mentioned that the “seated sequence” of my choreography (where I’m just dancing with my feet) reminded her of Charlie Chaplin’s “Oceana Roll” dance from his 1925 silent film, The Gold Rush. In this film, Charlie Chaplin’s character is entertaining a group of ladies at the dinner table by sticking forks into bread rolls and pretending to use them as feet as he performs a playful and humorous dance. It’s a very entertaining clip from the movie and I’m very pleased to see the similarity and how I’ve unintentionally paid it homage in a way.
How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?
The choreography was born out of necessity (but not taken on without much enthusiasm). In this case, I needed to have a choreographed piece to perform at the Toronto Lindy Hop Cabaret in just a few days time. Considering the audience and the event I was to perform in, I also wanted to choreograph something new outside of what people usually see me in as far as Blues dance performances are concerned. Something a bit more classy than gritty. Once I chose the song “Black Beauty,” everything else started falling into place. I let myself be inspired by the song, it’s emotion, and the story that unfolded in my mind. Once I had an idea for a character and a setting for the story, it was then about creating the dance – a Jazz performance with a Blues sensitivity.
For this piece, I integrated some Blues vocabulary as well as movements that had a “bluesy” feeling. The performance has movements that develop as they are repeated and which also travel across the floor depicting a stroll. The most enjoyable parts I had choreographing were the breaks and the accents! Sometimes, I have an idea of what to do with them first before anything else. Listening to the song, you can hear so much if it from the way the piano and the trumpet is played. There are so many opportunities to express so many things!
In cabaret fashion, I integrated the use of a chair as a prop where the dance would start and end. This reminds me how I later came across a YouTube video of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor (his co-star in Singin’ In The Rain) doing a tap dance while seated to a medley of musical numbers. I was pleased to see how Gene Kelly, my influence for my character in Black Beautyhad done something like that. It goes to show that nothing that we do today in dance is entirely original. At some time, someone, somewhere has done it before you did. I think that performances of the past are not only things we appreciate, but also serve to inspire us and provide us with opportunities to innovate through our art.
Black Beauty, a performance of a guy who is inspired by beauty, dance, and life in the moment, has been performed in the cities of Toronto, Rochester, Seattle, and Seoul. It’s one of my favorite choreographies. I hope you enjoy it!