PIECE BY PIECE

SCOTCH ON THE RACHMANINOFF

Premier date: 2011

Comedy is serious business — and sometimes it's a matter of life and (fake) death! As Ballets with a Twist Artistic Director Marilyn Klaus recalls, arriving at the "tragic" ending of Scotch on the Rachmaninoff, a 2011 premiere, was no easy feat:

"I often have a vision for a new piece before I step into the studio, and though that vision evolves as the choreography unfolds, the basic premise generally remains the same. Not so for Scotch on the Rachmaninoff. My dream of a jaunty solo for a kilt-wearing denizen of the Scottish Highlands — complete with a mountain set piece, up and down which he would dance — is a far cry from the slapstick piano duel in our repertory today.

I'm not sure exactly how the switch happened... I had been watching Victor Borge's piano duet parodies for years, and I may also have been inspired by a Marx brothers movie in which Harpo dismantles a baby grand. Destroying an instrument on stage during every performance didn't seem feasible, but the idea of piano benches stocked with all manner of comedic 'supplies' turned out to be a fabulous alternative. Shipping these props to each venue is arduous because they're heavy and they have to be taken apart every time, but the piece is such a crowd-pleaser that it's worth it. 

I'm a great admirer of vaudeville-style theatricality and farce, but I'm also totally intimidated by it. Creating a dance takes a long time for me as it is, so weaving in that kind of absurd humor only makes the process longer — and in fact, it's still going on for Scotch. Whenever a someone new steps into one of the roles, the overall atmosphere changes because humor is very personal. I just sit and watch over and over again, adding and editing with the dancers' input. 

Audiences usually don't know how much work it takes to get a laugh, but I'm thrilled that they're laughing, anyway!"

Ballets with a Twist composer Steve Gaboury has a dream... in the key of A major! When it came to creating the sound for Scotch on the Rachmaninoff, our main musician was on cloud nine. Here, he describes how a sensational piano solo became so much more:

"As a pianist, I considered it an absolute gift when Marilyn announced that Scotch on the Rachmaninoff would be our next dance cocktail. Coincidentally, a nickname of mine is 'Rach,' and I've always been a fan of the composer. Plus, the idea of dueling pianists actually duking it out sounded like a riot.

I wrote the piece in a hotel room while on tour in Europe with Cyndi Lauper. Originally, it was an exuberant piano solo, which I would occasionally play live when stage space and an instrument were available. (Fun fact: The taped together pages of music that one of the dancers pulls out of a prop piano bench is the actual Scotch score!)

​During a rehearsal several years ago, it suddenly dawned on me that the piece might benefit from a thrashing rock band. I wrote this idea into the middle, when the time signature switches from a majestic waltz to a dramatic march, and the competition on stage rises to a fever pitch. As the grand finale approaches, the opening waltz theme returns — but this time, with Marc Shulman's electric guitar blazing over top of driving violins led by Deni Bonet, and Ben Wittman's raucous drumming building excitement to the end.

​One of my deepest desires is to perform Scotch live with a full orchestra and rock band — a truly killer piano concerto!"

How much does dance cocktail couture cost? We'll never tell... But as Ballets with a Twist designer Catherine Zehr hints, our Scotch on the Rachmaninoff is worth far more than we bargained for! 

"When coming up with the look for a new piece, I sit in on as many rehearsals as I can because the choreography plays a key role in the design. This was especially true for Scotch on the Rachmaninoff, which revolves around well-controlled comedy between two musicians who take themselves very seriously. I thought that a formal costume — the type that Liberace might wear — would play well against the humor.

 I started with a pair of tailcoats, using a black sheer covered in silver glitter accents. Because the dancers' arm movements are exaggerated, I eliminated the sleeves so that there would be no restrictions to their gestures. For the pants, I chose a matte-finished lycra with satin stripes down the outside of the legs.

 Instead of using a traditional white shirt as an underlayer, I opted for a nude bodysuit, running silver elastic stripes accented with large sequins vertically down the front and placing a dark bowtie at the neck. The result is the visual impression of formal shirts, but without logistical drawbacks like staining, wrinkling, and inflexibility. This means that the dancers can crawl, roll around on the floor, and arm wrestle as they please — and they end up doing all those things!

 This dance is full of props, from the piano benches themselves to the many crazy objects we've packed into them over the years. I have spent endless time and energy on this aspect of the piece — particularly on two identical items that play a pivotal role in the action. They shall remain nameless (don't want to spoil the mystery!), but it's safe to say that they've made Scotch one of the most expensive parts of our repertory."

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