Ray Charles In A Fool For You With The NYC Ballet (1988, 1989)
In 1988 and 1989 Ray Charles starred in A Fool For You, a concert dansant with the New York City Ballet, set to his music.
|Martins and Charles.
Article from Esquire, May 1988.
The first time, on 14 and 15 May 1988, the performance was a closing part of the American Music Festival, at the Lincoln New York State Theater. The choreography was designed by Peter Martins. The stars in the original ballet cast were Judith Fugate, Leslie Roy, Heather Watts, Robert La Fosse, Lindsay Fischer, and Jock Soto.
Ray played with his old ‘small big band’, with Phil Guilbeau and Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Hank Crawford, David Newman and Leroy Cooper on sax, and with The Raelettes; he possibly also brought the rhythm section of the Ray Charles Orchestra.
The “12” songs were:
- Georgia On My Mind
- Ain’t That Love
- Don’t You Know
- It Should’ve Been Me
- Hit The Road Jack
- Mess Around
- A Fool For You
- I’ve Got A Woman
- Drown In My Tears
- What’d I Say
- Ol’ Man River
- America The Beautiful
…Right, that’s 13, not 12 (I’m quoting the Repertory Indexon the NYC Ballet’s website). The tunes with the number 1, 12 and 13 were arranged for the New York City Ballet Orchestra, and were supported, live of course, by a marvelous little choir with a big sound. In particular Ol’ Man River got a moving rendition, coming very close to the original album version.
Anna Kisselgoff, The New York Times’ critic (on 16 May 1988), was quite positive about the whole performance:
“Ray Charles took the New York City Ballet’s American Music Festival by storm Saturday night with a most unusual personal appearance.
This first foray by the popular singer, composer and pianist into the ballet world was greeted by screaming and yelling that threatened to make the walls of the New York State Theater come tumbling down. At last report, though, the house was intact for the repeat performance last night by Mr. Charles, his orchestra and his backup singers, the Raylettes [sic!], in Peter Martins’s premiere A Fool for You.
Performing at a piano in front of his eight-man orchestra, with room for the City Ballet’s dancers in front, Mr. Charles was very much his relaxed and nonchalant self.
What Mr. Charles has accomplished is to set a tone. And what Mr. Martins has picked up so refreshingly in his choreography and concept is a funkiness that is new to the City Ballet.
[…] A Fool for You, named after No. 8 of the 12 songs performed by Mr. Charles and his group, also featured a small choral ensemble in the pit with the City Ballet orchestra, conducted by Robert Irving. The ballet opened with Georgia On My Mind, and closed with Ol’ Man River.
When the ballet’s three main couples bounce in to the second song, Ain’t That Love their wiggling mix of stylized social dances – part jitterbug and part disco – announces the style and subject. The women wear booties rather than toe shoes, and the classical base of the choreography is felt rather than seen.
If some of A Fool for You looks like timid Broadway choreography, most of it can also be viewed as a distillation of social dances of the 1950’s and 1960’s, contemporary with Mr. Martins’s perspective on American popular music and dance as he was growing up in Denmark. This is not quite his fantasy equivalent of Grease, but it is a nostalgic look at popular imagery experienced second hand.
At its most successful, this approach is brilliantly embodied in a smashingly witty ensemble section for five young soloists, including Mr. Martins’s son, Nilas Martins (a dancer in the corps). To Mess Around, the younger Mr. Martins lopes through an abstract solo that refers to the chicken and monkey dances of the 1960’s. He is superb, sharply deadpan. Gordon Stevens, in cowboy outfit, thumps an invisible guitar for his stamping country miss, Florence Fitzgerald. Tom Gold, speedy, small and terrific, keeps time in his baseball outfit while Allison Brown flounces around.
This is baseball-card Americana brought vividly to life again in the finale when Mr. Gold streaks in and out around the entire cast. There is an even better, more sophisticated number: It Should’ve Been Me by Memphis Curtis (Mr. Charles did not compose all the songs). Robert La Fosse gives a star performance in a pratfall solo, finally laid out flat on his back when he gets nowhere with Miss Brown and Miss Fitzgerald. At the same time, the ironic edge of Mr. Charles’s singing fits beautifully.
Of the three main couples, Mr. La Fosse and the exuberant, delightful Judith Fugate look most at ease, although Stephanie Saland and Lindsay Fischer do very well in the tender Drown in My Tears. Heather Watts and Jock Soto are touching in the title song. Here Mr. Martins works against the love lyrics by successively having the dancers wistfully and playfully shadow each other.
The five Raylettes have their big number in Hit the Road, Jack. The danger that Mr. Charles and his musicians would overwhelm the dancers or become merely a backdrop was never an issue. The whole was always greater than the parts […].”
The performance was was aired by Channel 13, on 15 May 1988. A copy of this TV-program is in the New York Public Library, described here.
Another video tape (see comments below for a copy of a video “in wide shot”; this footage was possibly produced with an in-house video system at the Lincoln) , recorded on May 14, and produced for “archival purposes” is also in the collection of the NYPL, described here.
In this reprise, once again staged at the Lincoln Center, from 10 to 12 May 1989, Ray again brought his old brass players Guilbeau, Crawford, Newman and Cooper, but this time Marcus Belgrave (trumpet) was replaced by Jimmy Owens (an old friend of Crawford).
For the ballet, Ray Charles said in an Associated Press story (May 7, 1989), “Choreographer Peter Martins was the cat who picked some of my early recordings. I had to go back and learn the songs the way I did them at that time. They took the records and that’s what they learned the steps to. I play some of those songs today but I play them so different. […] I’m not going to do something to goof them up. […] They wanted it as close to the same sound as possible. I went out and found the cats. They all have their own things going now. They come in and do this just for me, which I think is sweet.”
Charles also brought the current Orchestra’s rhythm section (with Jeff Ballard on drums, Kenny Carr on guitar and Darren Solomon on bass). The Raelettes were Anita Brooks, Trudy Cohran, Kathryn Collier, Angie Workman and Estella Yarbrough. The New York City Ballet Orchestra was conducted by Robert Irving.
The 9 p.m. performance on 12 May was taped (directed by Kirk Browning) and then broadcast by PBS on May 14th, 1989, in the Live From Lincoln Center series. I’ve seen the tape – and it was fantastic. Charles was in top condition, performing all tunes with gusto, as if they were all part of his actual daily repertoire. Understandably, the band only got little room to play around. David Newman got a few ‘expected’ pre-arranged solo parts, and Leroy Cooper solo’ed on Mess Around.
This second time the New York Times’ critic wasn’t as enthusiastic about the dancing part: “The work ultimately deteriorated; there just weren’t enough ideas to sustain its length. But Mr. De Luz was a steamy knockout in It Should’ve Been Me, and Ms. Bouder and Ms. Weese radiated a witty sexiness throughout. There’s no reason to revive A Fool for You for City Ballet […].”
The copy shelved in the New York Public Library is described here.
Also read this article on a partial audio of the performance on 11 May 1989.
The ballet (or parts of it) are still on the New York City Ballet’s repertoire. The photo below is from a performance in 2005.
|Photo from the 2005 show;
the screen at the left
shows Ray at the concert in 1988.
Ray’s music was an inspiration for more choreographers. On 19 November 1978 the Canadian TV (CBC) aired Music To See, Danny Grossman Dance, performing Higher – music arranged by Jimmy Dale, based on Ray Charles’ blues and jazz music, and sung by Elaine Overholt.
On 6 February 1981 France 2 broadcast a program on a Romanian Choreographer, Gigi Caciuleanu, who created a solo ballet on a Ray Charles song (“a negro-spiritual”). Source: Ina, ID CPB81052616. That “negro spiritual” turns out to be Mess Around, and the choreography was from 1970, when it brought Caciuleanu the First Prize at the International Concours of Varna.
On 16 April 1984 France 3 aired a cultural magazine, announcing a ballet performance, where the dancers did a choreography based on Ray Charles’ version of Yesterday. Source: Ina, ID RCC02006350.