By GARY FERRINGTON
Eugene Ballet’s Artistic Director Toni Pimble brings together original choreography with live music in the world premiere of Tommy: The Ballet on April 11-12 at Eugene’s Hult Center for the performing arts.
Pimble’s new work, based on The Who’s classic 1969 rock opera, begins against the backdrop of World War II when Captain and Mrs. Walker become the parents of a young boy, Tommy. When Tommy is four, his father, assumed dead in battle, returns home to Britain to discover his wife and new lover in an embrace. A fight ensues, and the boyfriend is fatally shot. Tommy witnesses this tragedy reflected in a mirror, and he’s left in a catatonic state of sensory deprivation. As his story unfolds, Tommy is abused, rejected, and neglected. He remains unattached, seeming to connect with the world only when, as a teenager, a pinball machine becomes his passion. Without it, he continues to gaze into the mirror and finally, out of rage, frustration, and desperation, his mother shatters the mirror freeing Tommy from his catatonic state of mind.
News of his cure and his championship prowess as a pinball wizard causes him to become a hero idolized by the public and the press. But when he attempts to share his personal philosophy of peace, health and happiness, his fans reject him. As he once again begins slipping into his childhood reclusiveness, he turns to his family, embraces them in acceptance, and reconciles with his younger selves.
To learn more about this original production, ArtsWatch conducted an email interview with EB Artistic Director Toni Pimble, the show’s music director Tim McLaughlin (who leads Eugene’s award-winning jazz/funk/world-fusion band, Eleven Eyes) and dancers Isaac Jones (who performs as Kevin, Tommy’s evil babysitting cousin), Danielle Tolmie (the Gypsy Queen, prostitute and con woman) and Mark Tucker (Captain Walker).
AW: Toni, what was it about Peter Townshend’s rock opera that inspired you to select Tommy as the basis for this new ballet? How do you see today’s audiences connecting with Tommy’s personal journey?
Pimble: We are always looking for work that will appeal both to baby boomers and younger audience members. Tommy appeals to both types of audience. That said, when I re-listened to Tommy I realized that it’s a great story and a lot of good, interesting music. As a choreographer I need to find inspiration in the music to be creative.
Tommy contains all the elements of a classic story, with murder, cruel treatment, being misunderstood and the ability of our hero to break free of his mental anguish and become a whole person. All these factors are a part of the human experience and therefore eminently relatable to younger audiences, and of course with the baby boomer audience it will strike a very strong chord from their teen years.
AW: EBC audiences have come to appreciate the total theater experience that dance with live music provides. Tim, what were the challenges you experienced, as music director, when asked to create an ensemble to perform the Tommy score?
McLaughlin: Initial challenges included not actually having a score. A lot of what we are playing had to be figured out by ear. We eventually came across some printed music, but had already figured out a majority of the music by then. The music we found was great for a second opinion, so to speak. But really, this is rock n roll, which is an ear-based music, so reading music for this score seems like cheating. Figuring it out by ear helped us to dive into the nuances and inflections that make The Who sound like The Who.
The other initial (and greatest) challenge was creating a band that would be up for this, and also help create a convincing and artistic rendition of Tommy. Each member was cherry-picked as I knew they’d all bring to the table their unique skills and style to help bring Tommy to life.
Also, we don’t have a bunch of shows lined up to work out the kinks. We have to be spot on with the ballet from the first note onward, so that is how we are preparing. Everyone in the band has put in a ton of work and I’m really glad to be working with them all.
AW: Describe the process you and Toni developed for adapting and rehearsing the Tommy score.
McLaughlin: You would think that we’d have numerous rehearsals with the ballet, but the truth is we’ve had none. Toni has been to one of our rehearsals, and I’ve sent her iPhone recordings of a few tunes to work out the endings when there is a fade out on the album. But, other than that, we have a rehearsal the night before the curtain drops and that’s it! Oh, she did stress being consistent with the tempos, so we’re definitely focusing on that. We all have a lot of faith in each other.
There is a lot of energy behind this. We as a band are excited; this production has pulled us together as a group. We work well together and are really stoked with the sound. It’s really interesting and challenging for us to prepare it for the Ballet. There is no room to “jam” or be loose with the arrangements, but we can’t let it sound stiff either. We want to be able to let the dancers trust us so they can do their thing. And at the same time, we’re gonna rock, ‘cause there is no other way to do it.
AW: This classic rock composition has been adapted for film, Broadway, opera, and symphony. What have been choreographic challenges for you with integrating dance, music, and a live band?
Pimble: There are many short scenes (eleven altogether), which is challenging choreographically, but I have laid it out so that it flows like a musical. It is an hour long without intermission. There are a couple of songs that I felt it necessary to cut, “Wicked Uncle Ernie” being one of them and also the songs relating to Sally Simpson because I felt the story needed to be concise and focused on Tommy and his journey.
I have to say the challenges have not been mine. Tim McLaughlin has been great to work with. Once I established which songs we would include, he worked on putting the music together for the band. I have attended one band rehearsal so far and they were very welcoming of feedback from me. They are passionate musicians. For our dancers who are passionate about dance, the combination of the two always creates a synergy that is very exciting.
The band will be upstage of the action but still very visible. Siri Vik [well known Eugene performer specializing in European cabaret music] asked me at their band rehearsal if they should not move too much to distract from the dancers. For me, the band is not in a secondary role; they should be able to express the music with all their being as much as the dancers. It will only add to the overall conviction of the performance. The two energies feed off one another.
AW: Of the various scenes, number six must have been an interesting one to choreograph. In this one Tommy’s cousin and friends take him to an arcade where they discover, to their astonishment, that Tommy is a “Pinball Wizard.” How did you develop this scene?
Pimble: This has been great fun. Firstly, I didn’t see the machines as being stationary. The production staff built five machines on casters with one very large machine for Tommy and four regular-size machines.
Before we even finished the designs of the machines, I realized that I needed something to work with in the studio, so Bi-Mart very kindly agreed to lend us five shopping carts. Have you ever tried dancing with a shopping cart? It is interesting because the two wheels by the handle of the cart are fixed and the two wheels at the front of the cart rotate fully. And yes, that influenced how the dancers manipulate the carts and eventually the pinball machines.
We create patterns with the machines during the big pinball scene and the men mostly manipulate the carts and use them as a partner. And luckily, so far we haven’t run over anyone!
AW: A question for Isaac, Danielle, and Mark. EBC’s spring performances traditionally focus on contemporary themes and music. What has been unique to you as dancers working on this project with a rock band and vocalists?
Jones: Working with a live ensemble is such a blessing. We are so fortunate to get to collaborate with such great artists. As dancers, we are really used to working with classic compositions (which are beautiful), so getting to work with some rock music has been a treat. It has allowed us to break out and push ourselves in our movement styles. Toni really understands the music and what she wants that for us with this piece as well, so we have been given really great directions to work in, while still being allowed to use our own artistic individuality. It’s been a truly splendid process.
Tolmie: This ballet is more like a musical than any other show we’ve done. There are a lot of quick scene changes using lighting, moving set pieces, pinball machines, and we even have an elevated catwalk that goes up and along the edge of the stage. All of these aspects make it really difficult to get an accurate idea of how long things will take and how things are actually going to feel
We love dancing to rock vocal and instrumental music. It is so refreshing to move to something other than classical music. Not that we don’t love and appreciate the classical music as well, but it’s really nice to switch it up and do something so outside of our comfort zone.
Tucker: Rock ballet is a great way to display classical ballet technique, though it is not restricted to classical vocabulary. There are some clear differences in movement, phrasing, and the manner in which you communicate your story. Musical lyrics can be both liberating and restrictive. When a story is being told in a song, there is a temptation to mime out the story. Contrary to that, you can take a lot of liberties in how you drive the story when you don’t have to act out the dialog for the audience. With Tommy, the challenge has come with finding the balance between being literal with movement, and where to indulge with non- story driving movement like big lifts and tricks.
This final performance of the Eugene Ballet season opens with Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre’s rock-influenced ballet Fluctuating Hemlines based in the social culture of the 1960s. Learn more about this performance at the Ballet Insider session with EBC Artistic Director Toni Pimble, 45 minutes before curtain in The Studio, lower level at the Hult Center.
Eugene Ballet performs Tommy: The Ballet on Saturday, April 11 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 12 at 2:00 pm at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available online and at the Hult Center box office.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.
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