Marina del Rey Symphony hosts brand-new choreography for ‘An American in Paris’

By Christina Campodonico

Dancers will bring new interpretations of Gershwin to life
Photo by Heidi Marie Photography

How do you put your own stamp on an American classic? That’s the challenge that choreographer Nancy Dobbs Owen had to tackle for her latest project — creating a completely new and original dance for George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which the Marina del Rey Symphony performs as part of their “Sights, Sounds & Dance in America” summer concert program this Thursday in Burton Chace Park.

For this collaboration, Owen watched the Academy Award-winning Gene Kelly film based on Gershwin’s score (and known for its dreamy 17-minute Technicolor dance sequence) only once, and contemplated Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography for the 2015 Broadway musical version of the iconic movie. But she wanted to make sure her choreography stood on its own two feet.

“We kind of abstracted it out,” says Dobbs, who notes that her cast will be dancing to Gershwin’s original score of “American in Paris,” not the one adapted for the 1951 film version. In her imagining, four couples are in a park, celebrating their friend who finally gets the girl or the guy.

“The audience can have whatever interpretation they want,” she says. “What I was telling the dancers is, you know, when you have a clique of five friends from high school and the last [single] one finally gets married or finally gets their boyfriend … or girlfriend? Everyone’s happy about it and everyone’s celebratory and it’s just a really good time.”

Brightly hued costumes in primary colors will add to this joyous energy, adds Owen, along with the technical expertise of the ensemble’s lead couple, Aria Alekzander and Spencer Ramirez.

“She’s a full on classical dancer,” says Owen of Alekzander, who will perform on pointe. “She danced for American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet. … Spencer has quite a varied resume. He danced for Mark Morris for three years. He’s done Broadway. He’s done ballet. He’s a wonderful, wonderful performer.”

In addition to new movement for “An American in Paris,” Owen has created original choreography for three sections of American composer Craig Safan’s Odyssey-inspired “Sirens.”

While the dancing doesn’t follow Odysseus’ epic 10-year sea voyage to reunite with his family to the letter, notes Owen, it does show a journey of sorts.

“I abstracted it pretty intensely,” she says. “That being said, the dancers are all struggling in the first movement. They’re trying to find each other, they’re trying to hold on to each other and they all get pulled apart. The second section is a pas [de deux] with Michael Tomlin III and Kate Coleman … where they’re eventually able to come together. And the third movement is a celebration of that fact.

“We kind of turned the ocean more into a ‘river,’” she adds, “The idea of the ocean onstage is a little bit vast and unspecified, so we kind of made it a river. But the feeling of getting lost in water, I think you’ll see. The girls’ skirts … the fabric kind of looks like sun-dappled water and blues and greens as the light goes through it.”

Marina del Rey Symphony artistic director Frank Fetta, who’ll also conduct music from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” and Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” (both ballet symphonies), is excited for the “kinetic art” Owen’s choreography and dancers will bring to the stage for “Sirens” and “American in Paris.”

“We’re doing great music — all of which could be done symphonically, but we’re adding to it,” he says. “We always try to keep it fresh.”

“Sights, Sounds & Dance in America” happens at 7 p.m. Thursday (July 25) in Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Free. RSVP at eventbrite.com or visit beaches.lacounty.gov/concerts for more info.

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