Welcome back to Pointe of View, the official podcast/blog of the Alabama Ballet. For next guest, I have Mr. Dennis Nahat, creator, director, and choreographer of Blue Suede Shoes. Today, we’re going to sit down and discuss the blue suede shoes production and Dennis’ point of view.
Ashlyn: Hi Dennis, thank you for joining me today. How are you?
Dennis: Good morning! I’m still alive.
Ashlyn: That’s good to hear. So, first off, why don’t you take a moment just to introduce yourself and tell everyone a little bit more about your background.
Dennis: Okay. I’ve been a dancer all my life basically. I was born in Detroit, Michigan. I started dancing when I was 8 and a half and I went to The Julliard School of Music out of high school and from that, I went into the Joffrey Ballet early on in the early stages of the company, well, actually in the beginning of the company at City Center, New York City. I did several years on Broadway where I was a dancer, singer. I danced in Sweet Charity and West Side Story and a bunch of other musicals and choreographed a lot of industrial shows. I entered into the American Ballet Theater where I had begun my career as a dancer and a young choreographer and I did about six ballets for American Ballet Theater, and at the same time started a company in Cleveland, Ohio known as the Cleveland Dance Center. We started the school there and then a company formed out of that school in 1972. The company became the 5th largest ballet company in the United States. Fifteen years later, we joined with the City of San Jose California, now the Silicon Valley. We became the Cleveland San Jose Ballet or San Jose Cleveland Ballet however you wish to call it or wherever we were at the time. We moved all the operations from Cleveland to San Jose where it became The Ballet San Jose and here we are in Alabama doing a ballet that I did for the Cleveland San Jose Ballet in 1996. This is the first company that is performing Blue Suede Shoes out of the original company.
Ashlyn: How’s Alabama been treating you so far?
Dennis: Alabama is wonderful especially Birmingham. Yes, I’ve not been into many other places in Alabama. I certainly have been in Alabama because I performed in almost every state in the country including Birmingham, but Birmingham is a really well-kept secret, isn’t it? It’s amazing. You have so much culture here.
Ashlyn: When you were at ABT, did you ever crossed paths with Roger then?
Dennis: No, Roger came after me. I was already gone. I’m much, much older. But we were born in the same city, in Detroit.
Ashlyn: So then you have the Michigan connection.
Dennis: We do. A lot of talented people from Detroit.
Ashlyn: As you said, the Alabama Ballet will be performing your ballet Blue Suede Shoes as their first production of the 2019-2020 season. So give us a little run down of what this ballet is about.
Dennis: Blue Suede Shoes came out of decades of my germinating it. I saw Elvis Presley perform in Detroit as a matter of fact, at the Fox Theater when I was 9 years old. Then I saw him later on when he was in Columbus, Ohio when I was already running a ballet company. All my life I’ve loved his music. I was always dancing to it, of course growing up knowing the music of Elvis was part of our culture back then. One season in ’95, ’96 we were preparing the programs and my board and the executive directors of both Cleveland and San Jose wanted me to do a full-length ballet. I had already done many of the major classics for our company. As you know, with the ballet company and repertoire, you’re constantly evolving and stimulating the audience with new productions. They wanted me to do a new Sleeping Beauty because we had big opera houses to fill. 3,000 seats every night. We were doing over 90 to a 120 performances a year and I said at that moment, “No, we don’t need to do Sleeping Beauty because you don’t have enough money to produce one and we should not do another rushing classic. Why don’t we do something strictly and visually beautiful that is American that the audience can pick up on? Let’s do some new works that our full-length ballet and are with American styles and themes.” And they said “Well, what can you do, my God these major warhorses of the classics sell out all the time,” and I said, “We should do something like music, a ballet to Elvis” I threw it off the top of my head. They put their pencils down and looked at me and they said “what?”
I remember it so vividly. The looks on their faces, they thought I was crazy. I just kept talking, and they said, “Well, tell us more” and I said, “Well, we should do this and this, this about Elvis Presley but it’s not about Elvis Presley, we should dance about America and what we were like in the ’50s and ’60s and what influenced us.” Certainly, Elvis Presley was a huge influence and actually still is today to so many people. I just started putting it together. The board and the company, both companies, both sides, really didn’t want me to do that. They wanted to be sure that they would have another hit in a classic. As boards go, you know, sometimes they become a little bit protective of their financing and their donations and they want to make sure that what they give or get is put on the stage that they can go around and how tell themselves and say look what we produced than another classic. But I didn’t think that our company was, one, ready for Sleeping Beauty because it’s not only a mega-production, you have to have really fine finely tuned dancers for that classic. Our dancers, all be that they were good, I didn’t think we had enough of them to do Sleeping Beauty. So I said I will do an original ballet on these dancers and create something specifically for our American audience. They didn’t want me to do it and in fact, refused to fund it. They were ready to fund a Sleeping Beauty but they weren’t ready to fund and I couldn’t convince them that I would do a spectacular production. So what I did was create another company on the side. A for profit organization, it was called New Dance Ventures and I raised the money as I would a Broadway musical, as an investment and payback to the investors and raised a million and a half dollars to produce Blue Suede Shoes, under New Dance Ventures. After that, I paid Cleveland and San Jose Ballet for the rehearsal times and the production of it. So, I hired my own company to create this work.
Then we start production and I needed, of course, the rights to all of the music and I had to conquer that. There’s now over 50 songs that I had already put in the original production. I cut it down to 36 but I went through all 250 songs of Elvis Presley and put them in categories and then created a scenario that would work with all the music and that I had to make sure the music was in the same timber and the songs would go flowing into one another. Then I had to create a CD or a tape that would connect the music. Then I needed costumes and scenery and I had recently met Bob Mackie, the famed Bob Mackie who did The Carol Burnett Show and Cher, all of those costumes on television. He wasn’t working at that time which was fortunate for me. So I said, “Would you be interested in doing a ballet?” He said, “I’ve never done a ballet before”. I said, “Here’s my idea and it’s right up your alley because you were in the ’50s and ’60s. “Great!” So, he started designing a few pieces. I told him what we were doing. We met many times in Hollywood and he came to Cleveland several times and we started working. He thought he was going to do a few costumes, it wound up to be 280 costumes which he went crazy about, you know.
Ashlyn: Way more than he probably signed on for.
Dennis: Oh yeah, of course, because he didn’t have a full concept of what it was we were doing nor did anybody else, once I put all the music together. I started choreographing and of course, you never can choreograph in the sequence from beginning to end, you have to jump from the middle to the end to the three quarters the way. So all these songs were being rehearsed in the studio and no one had an inkling of how they were gonna be put together until actually a day before we went into the theater and started rehearsal on stage and then everybody got the idea of what they were doing. Even though I could explain to people, they still looked at me like I was crazy. Even board members at that time told me, “Why are you doing an Elvis Presley piece of music? You should be doing the classics. This is a classical ballet” and I said, “Yeah baby, Elvis is a classic”.
Later on, they came and they heard and saw the ballet and heard him singing all of these beautiful pieces of music that he put out. They came to me afterwards and said, “You know, we had no idea that he had that range and vocal ability” and they thank me for it and actually became big Elvis’ fans after hearing and seeing the ballet. The ballet is not about Elvis Presley, mind you, you don’t see an Elvis on stage. But everything on the stage is about his persona and what he stood and what we got out of his music and how we, as Americans in the ’50s and ’60s developed our own characters. We go through high school and there are three buddies in high school and everybody graduates. It’s all high school innocence, we got to the hot dog driving and then we go to the induction center because we all went to get inducted into the army at that time. Even Elvis did. Reality hits home, now you’re in the army. Now you’re away from home and everything changes. You lose your girlfriend. There’s death in your family. You lose your Mama while you’re away, you come back you don’t know anybody and no one knows you and they could care less about you. You’re alone and you’re in hotels and you’re going by the streets and the streets are busy and people don’t notice who you are or could care less who you are. You finally get your act together and you go out and you meet your buddies again after many years of not seeing them and you go out for Saturday night. You get thrown in jail, you know and then you get out. You have a successful life like Elvis did, the rockin’ golden goodies. It’s the American dream and everybody has fame and fortune as an American dream. There it is at the end of the show, the three buddies are back together having gone through life together and each of them successful in their own right as Americans and the good life that America can provide in certain instances for sure.
Ashlyn: So, this idea more came from, I guess, your passion after seeing Evis perform live and his music, correct? if you had to define where this “aha” moment came from for this ballet, is there one?
Dennis: Well, it came at that time they were asking me to do a Sleeping Beauty even though I was saying in my mind that I should do Elvis. At that moment I realized this is the time I need to do a ballet using Elvis Presley’s music because he had influenced my dancing actually, because he was a fabulous dancer. All of his gyrations and moves were so unique that I often imitated them myself and actually put them in some of the ballets that I was in. Of course, they didn’t look like that but they were influenced by that. The fact that I was doing a ballet now about America to an American classic performer, Elvis Presley. The idea was not to imitate Elvis or have anything looking like Elvis on the stage because once you do that, you’re ridiculous. Nobody can imitate Elvis Presley even though they do, it’s always a joke and I don’t like that. I think it’s disrespectful to someone who was such a– he was who he was in all the stages of his life. Be it good, better and different, that’s who he is. You can’t imitate those great people and when you try to, all you are is an imitator. It’s fun for entertainment value if that’s what it is but this the one what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to have anybody go “Ha, ha, ha. Look at Elvis Presley” or “ha, ha, ha, isn’t that sad?” or “Isn’t that cute?” No. It’s about America, really and what he did for us.
Ashlyn: When you were to the original company back in 1995, ’96, what was that creative process like, working with them?
Dennis: I would call everybody to the studio like I would any ballet or any rehearsal. Only this time I was paying for it all literally out of my own pocket, raising the money to do it and called everybody to rehearsal. They weren’t sure because I have a lot of dancers from Europe and all over the world. At one point, one of my Russian dancers came to me, she said, “Dennis, I had been rehearsing and take class all my life for classical ballet, now you ask me to do the twist on point and turn in my legs.” She was very mad.
I told her if she did it really well she gets more notoriety and more exposure and more enjoyment out of doing this than 32 turns in Swan Lake. She finally got into it because when you’re not of that generation you don’t know what the Jitterbug or that whole style. It’s totally alien to you. It has no reason or rhyme and especially they didn’t know what the ballet was about until I could finish it for them and then we could run it and there was this “aha” moment to everybody. “Oh, I see where we’re going and what we’re doing and what we’re wearing”. Even Bob Mackie to the point of going on stage didn’t know that he didn’t have to create any more costumes because other sections were being put into it where they would repeat a costume and he came screaming at me in the studio, “You can’t do that, I don’t have any more costumes left” and we were so behind in making costumes. I said, “Bob you don’t have to make any more costumes, everybody’s going to change their clothes and come back in a different way and it’s a curtain call. Don’t worry about it”. “No, no, no. They’re all telling me they’re in the solid gold”. We had already employed 13 or 14 Hungarian seamstresses that were flown in from Hollywood to sit in a studio that we made makeshift wardrobe shop. We put 13 sewing machines in the studio and there they were stitching the last edges of the costumes before performance because they weren’t near finish before the performance.
They did get them done though and it was amazing because the studio turned into a wardrobe shop and material all over the place. Bob Mackie going nuts up until curtain time until I grabbed his hands and said, “Come on, Bob, let’s go outside and watch the show”. He said, “I can’t, I’m too nervous” I said, “Let’s go”. We went upstairs, we watched it from the first row of the balcony. At the very end, of course, everybody is going mad in the theater screaming. There’s 15 minutes curtain calls from, everybody’s so excited about it and he turned and looked at me he says, “By golly, I think it works.”
Ashlyn: And sure enough, it did.
Dennis: I said, “Your costumes and scenery are beautiful” He designed the scenery too because I wanted it to be a total look. I didn’t want too many creators because you get many different points of view. Once he understood what we were doing, he was brilliant in his design. He said, “But I don’t know anything about scaling for the stage.” I said, “You just design what I’m asking you to design and put your touch to it and we’ll scale it”. and we did. He was astounded at how things could be made for the stage from the drawing.
Ashlyn: So, you have 280 plus costumes by Bob Mackie, you have over what? 16 sets also designed by Bob Mackie and then you have the dynamic opening numbers in high school to the gold finales and everything in between. So, give the audience a little bit more insight into what they can expect when they come out to this production.
Dennis: You’re gonna see dancers in a high school, outside the high school. Of course, dancing, having a good time with each other and the three guys with their Blue Suede Shoes. They are the only ones that wear blue suede shoes and it’s sort of like their little club. Three guys. It’s Johnny, who is the high school athlete who all the girls want to be with and then there’s Arthur, who’s the nerd. He wears glasses and everybody sort of laughs at him all the time, the little fella. And then there’s the other side of the tracks, the fellow comes from a lonely family and there’s nobody pays too much attention to him. He’s alone most of the time but he’s with the crowd and then he goes to the army and he comes home and there’s nobody. He has no family. So those are the three main characters. Then there’s long, tall Sally who’s the high school beauty of the school that everybody wants to be with. There is the big boss man who’s the guy who dropped out of school, who’s on the streets now and he’s trying to woo the girls to go with him and have a good time on Saturday night. Then we go to the hot dog drivin’ from high school and we have a good time in front of the driving with our cars, convertibles. And then there’s graduation, and you go onto the army and there’s an induction center which is a comedy, very funny. Then bang! Reality hits you in the army and then you’re traveling to Frankfort or to Europe or someplace else. We used Frankfort special, which is one of his great songs. There’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and I used it as a metaphor so that he is alone and there’s all the men marching to Are You Lonesome Tonight. It’s a waltz but they’re marching away from home in the army. Arthur’s mother dies and he’s alone again and they come back to the United States, they come back home and they wind up in a hotel by themselves. Each of them in their own room, unbeknownst to each other that they’re around the same place back home and they decide they’re going to get their lives together and they change their clothes and put some civilian clothes on and try to go out into the world and they run into each other and they have great times on Saturday night. They get into trouble and wind up in jail. Then they get out of jail and rock and gold and goodies begins, where they start to have a positive outlook on life and fame and fortune.
Ashlyn: This ballet is so different, I think not only for us but for audiences. There is never a dull momentyou have spectacular costumes and sets and lighting and the music is, of course, of its own. It’s a huge production and it’s very exciting to watch and it’s almost to the caliber of a Broadway.
Dennis: It was actually, in my mind, being created as a Broadway musical. In fact, it was over two hours long and I cut it back because I took out many sections I didn’t relate to the song and we had an intermission. I took the intermission out and part it down to an hour and a half nonstop. Sort of like a locomotive, once it starts you don’t dare stop it because then the energy drops and you can’t pick it up again. Yeah, it needed to be one fell swoop. Straight from beginning to end and everybody is just flying high with it. They don’t want it to end. In fact, every time we’ve done it when we toured the United States, we went to eight major cities around the country and PBS filmed it for one of their PBS specials where they do their fundraisers and every time we did it around the country, people just never left the theater. Even the curtain came down it was over at last curtain call, ten curtain calls, how many can you do. They wouldn’t leave the theater. I’ve decided about ten minutes after the curtain came down, I let the tape roll and at the end I put “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the theater”
Ashlyn: This ballet made its world premiere in Cleveland, right? In 1996, and being the first company to revive this production since then I’m sure is very exciting for you outside of what company you’re used to. So, talk a little bit more about what that’s been like coming here to Birmingham and working with The Alabama Ballet and our dancers.
Dennis: When it premiered, it premiered the same time the new rock hall of fame opened in Cleveland also which is odd that they both opened– well, I knew it was opening and I knew the people in Cleveland of course, so I fashioned the opening at the same time so that we could use the rock hall of fame for our gala after the performance. So we had a big party afterward at the rock hall of fame and then we performed it in many cities around the country, and finally in San Jose in 2007. Okay, and I put the production away in my warehouse and I’ve maintained it all this time and kept it and I said, “Someday, somebody will do it again” but it’s not an easy piece to do. A lot of companies wanted it but they weren’t sure because it wasn’t a classic. Even though they saw it and they knew what it was and they saw it on television they’re still not sure because it takes a lot to do it. You really have to be committed to do this kind of thing otherwise it will be a disaster and a fiasco and a joke. But Alabama Ballet and Tracey and Roger, I knew them both and from their good work. My lighting designer, Kenneth Keith, has been working here and he said, “You know, they’re interested in your Blue Suede Shoes. I’m going to be there, I’m lighting and we could do it again if you want to.” So I came down and looked at the company and I saw all these wonderful personalities on the stage, which is rare because most of the companies are cookie-cutter dancers. They don’t have that here, they have individuals that are individual artists with a face and I like characters. I don’t care whether you can dance brilliantly or not. If you are somebody, and you’re an artist you can create that illusion of being the greatest dancer.
Some of the greatest dancers as a matter of fact, on the stage, were not great technicians. They just step foot on stage and you can’t take your eyes off of them because they’re stars. I saw individuals that could do all of the roles here and then Tracy hired more dancers to fill in the company for the extra bodies that are needed and so what she’s fashioned here is a pretty extraordinary looking group of dancers. I don’t do the same ballet for any dancer. In fact, every time I did it for my company, every cast I did it and I must have had over a dozen casts. Different principles in it over the time. I would alter things for them because you have to give dancers freedom and if one step worked on somebody else it may not work on them but the expression and the idea is what’s important. I will look at somebody here and I say “You know, let’s not do that. Let me change that. Let me have another rehearsal with him” and I’ll make a whole new solo for him with the same intent but it’s gotta be for this body, for this person and their artistic growth at that time in their career and at the same time challenging so that they have something to put their teeth in.
It’s not so easy that they can just whistle it away but still they have a challenge and still be able to create in it and feel freedom to express themselves. That’s what’s been exciting for me and I like doing that anyway. You’re not going to see exactly every step, the way I did it in ’96 but certainly you will see the exact intent because the music hasn’t changed and much of the choreography, most of all the choreography is exactly the same but the timing I will alter a bit for everybody and make it their own work. So they can have it and live with it their own way because human beings are different. No dancers are the same, you will never see the same performer looking like anybody else. They will never look like anybody else even though they will try. They may even do the same steps but they won’t look like somebody else.
That’s what’s wonderful about dancing, you’ll never see the same performance twice. Even by the same cast. It’s always different and it’s always something you relish and I go to the theater to see and I’d say to the dancers, “I don’t care that you missed that step” and they’re crying because they missed a few steps, I said, “It doesn’t matter. You lived. You were somebody on stage. Surprise me.” It doesn’t have to be. You’re on stage alone, make it happen and out they would go. Believe it or not, dancers are amazing. They can do anything. You give them the frame to work in and the idea of what they’re doing and once they understand it, human beings are amazing. We can create anything you want to if you believe it. If you don’t believe it, it’s another story. Technique, you got to have but we presume and presuppose everybody already has technique before they come to the studio to work with me because they’re in the studio right now working for two hours before I even see them perfecting their technique every single day. The directors are killing them. Making then look like dancers, changing their bodies. Then they come tome and I throw it all off the window. We get rid of all of that but they need that technique in order to move into another area.
Ashlyn: Is there anything else you want to add in regards to this production or working with our company or anything before we wrap up?
Dennis: All I know is that anybody that comes to see it is going to have an eyeful. In every respect of the word eyeful. The gentlemen are going to really want to get a closer look and the ladies are going to get a closer look…
Ashlyn: Especially in these Bob Mackie costumes.
Dennis: Especially in those Bob Mackie costumes and especially in the funny induction center. Everybody’s going to have a great time and the ladies look so beautiful. It must be painful for them to wear something so beautiful and look so ravishingly beautiful in those Bob Mackie costumes. The men look so handsome, they look young and vivacious and energetic. It couldn’t be a more fun time. In fact, one of the critics, I remember writing in San Francisco, at the San Francisco Chronicles said, “These dancers are having too good a time” So that’s wonderful. They would feel that the performers were having such a good time, there was no problem. Everybody could just sit back and clap along with the piece or just sing along with it if they wanted to. It’s a good time for everybody. And we need a good time, don’t we?
Ashlyn: Well, Dennis, I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy rehearsal schedule to join me today to discuss everything. Blue Suede Shoes will be opening October 4th through 6th at the BJCC Concert Hall and we’d love to have you come out and see this production. We’re also going to have a post curtain talk on opening night, Friday, October 4th with Dennis. So stick around so you can see some of the Bob Mackie costumes and have a Q&A with Dennis. You won’t want to miss this. Be sure and subscribe also to our podcast on Spotify to be notified when the next episode comes out.