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Rising to the occasion: the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company.

The City Never Sleeps
By Mae G. Banner

Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company, the Don Byron Ensemble
The Egg, Jan. 21

If your game is tennis or chess, you grow by playing with a partner who’s one or two levels above you. The Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company got a similar boost in last Friday’s world- premiere performance set to music by Leonard Bernstein.

The dancers were visibly inspired by jazz clarinetist Don Byron’s arrangements of excerpts from Mass, On the Waterfront, West Side Story and Candide, played live by Byron and a five-man ensemble deliciously endowed with extra clarinets.

The jazz and dance show was the pinnacle event in the Egg’s 10-day, multi-arts celebration of Bernstein’s legacy. Executive director Peter Lesser (with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts) commissioned Byron’s arrangements and Sinopoli’s choreography for a five-part suite that she named Metropolis.

Sinopoli’s company has been resident at the Egg for 13 seasons. She’s an astute collaborator, making the most of associations with a range of musicians and visual artists. In pairing her with Byron, Lesser’s vision for what the Egg can do has brought Sinopoli the chance of a lifetime.

Working with Robert DeBellis on bass clarinet and J D Parran on contra-alto clarinet, plus a sophisticated rhythm section of George Colligan (piano), Leo Traversa (bass) and Ben Wittman (drums), Byron crafted his own take on Bernstein’s jazz-based, Latin-tinged music. Every musical voice was distinct and slanted in new, unpredictable directions. The reed section had the weight of a full orchestra at times; yet the music kept a light, witty touch, with plenty of improvised excursions.

Sinopoli couched Metropolis as a day in the city, keying her dances to times of day, from a midnight procession to a late-night party. “Part I—12:01 a.m.” had the five dancers posing with light-headed self- satisfaction. They wore black unitards tracked with white graffiti and overlaid with gorgeous fishtailed tunics of a teal-colored metallic fabric. The whole effect—dance and music together—was just short of cartoony, which is certainly what Byron, if not Bernstein, had in mind.

It then segued to slow, dark music and movement that evoked a shadowy waterfront, complete with foghorns and echoes. Long-limbed Ann Olson, back with the company after a stretch in New York City, did an earthy solo that suited the film-noirish music. Jason Sinopoli’s lighting added shadows upon shadows for a duet by Melissa George and Sarah Pingel that evolved into the sound of shimmering cymbals and the approach of dawn.

Byron’s group played beyond the end of the dance, a wonderfully snarling bass clarinet bringing on a jumpy, sprinting crowd of dancers in black jazz shoes. This was “Part III—8:59 a.m.” Dancers flung their arms, did skewed leapfrog moves, and, at one point, hit the ground together like a multiheaded beast. The clarinet-driven music was headlong, and the dancers matched its energy.

While the dancers reassembled offstage, Byron’s ensemble played excerpts from Bernstein’s Preludes, Fugues & Riffs, a knockout concerto for clarinet and big band. This was followed by “One Heart, One Hand,” a chorale-like ballad from West Side Story that Byron softened and made his own. The dancers returned, barefoot again and with white chiffon scarves drifting over one shoulder. Their slow dancing elongated into a tableau, shoulder to shoulder, angling down to the ground.

Staccato drove legato off the scene in “Part V—10:35 p.m.” to that nutty riff from “I Am Easily Assimilated” in Candide. Now, the dancers were cocky, strutting in those beautiful teal tunics, sweeping across the stage, doing a play tango that fit the nasty, dissonant tones of the low clarinets. Thank you, Don Byron, for kicking it up several notches.

The all-premiere evening opened with Counterflow, Sinopoli’s ensemble dance to recorded excerpts from “The Age of Anxiety,” Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2. The players on the 1950 recording were the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bernstein, with piano soloist Lukas Foss.

Five long panels of cloth hung from the flies and dominated the dance. Sinopoli and her lighting designer (her son, Jason) make evocative use of color and light. The suede-finished panels were pearly pastels of green, yellow, tan, and peach. Light rolled down the cloth, changing its colors, while the dancers, one to a panel, stepped behind these vertical flags and let their hands rim down the fabric’s edges.

There was an implied drama as each dancer looked at her panel wonderingly, lifted the edges or twisted it like a scarf and then let it go. But, overall, Counterflow was pedestrian, the moves too closely tied to the turbulence or receding of Bernstein’s powerful music. The imaginatively lit cloth was beautiful in its own right, more arresting to watch than the choreography.

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