During his lifetime, jazz pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) deliberately shunned the spotlight, while such greats as Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and others performed his compositions to widespread acclaim.
There was a reason for Strayhorn’s reclusive lifestyle: He was openly gay at a time when it was unacceptable, in some cases illegal. As a result, he is not a household name today like his better-known contemporaries.
David Roussève is trying to change that.
This weekend the Los Angeles-based dancer, choreographer, writer and director will be bringing Strayhorn’s story to the stage of the Contemporary Arts Center with his eight-member dance company, David Roussève/REALITY. They'll give three performances of “Halfway to Dawn,” a multimedia tribute to Strayhorn and his body of work. The troupe will dance to music Strayhorn composed, while projected text and video art tell more of the story.
“The best way to capture the essence of Strayhorn is through his music and trying to excavate the emotional through-lines of his life as they are reflected in that music,” Roussève said.
The piece, which premiered in the fall of 2018, will feature 15 of Strayhorn’s best-known compositions, including “Take the A-Train,” “Lush Life,” “UMMG,” “Satin Doll” and more.
Roussève first became aware of Strayhorn when a Broadway producer brought the composer’s story to his attention in the late 1990s during a performance Roussève was giving in Brooklyn, New York. The producer showed him the unfinished script of a musical Strayhorn had been working on, and it sparked Roussève interest.
“I knew that one day I would do something on him, but I wanted to do it in my own way — and now I have,” Roussève said.
During the performance the dancers, four males and four females, will be performing as couples and as the full ensemble, but there will also be solos and duets, Roussève said. The onstage action, he noted, will reflect a timeline of Strayhorn’s life and career, ranging from the ostracism he faced because of his sexual orientation to the public stands he took during the civil rights movement.
All Strayhorn's songs used in the performance will be played in their entirety, Roussève said. “Early on we decided to use recordings (instead of a live band) because, thematically, it is very important to have the different textures and feels and tones of those recordings, including the old mono records of the Ellington band or Ella Fitzgerald’s singing with a jazz orchestra.”
The dance techniques will incorporate mostly jazz styles with some hip-hop and other motifs worked into the mix, Roussève said. Digital images, designed by videographer Cari Ann Shim Sham, will be projected full length against the rear of the stage, as well as onto TV-sized boxes and even onto the dancers themselves.
For Roussève this weekend will be a homecoming of sorts. Although he was born in Houston and now resides in Los Angeles, he has strong family ties to New Orleans and has visited the city many times. His parents, both New Orleanians, met while attending Xavier University. His father, Roland Roussève Sr., was a well-known French Quarter jazz musician who, along with former New Orleans mayor Dutch Morial, were the first African Americans to enter graduate school at LSU.
“I am eagerly looking forward to coming back to New Orleans and performing here in the city where jazz was born,” Roussève said.
Halfway to Dawn
WHAT: A multimedia performance by the members of the David Roussève/REALITY dance company paying tribute to jazz composer Billy Strayhorn
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St. , New Orleans
INFO: (504) 528-3800. cacno.org