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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Featured Stories

Sue Palmer and the San Diego Ballet: Where Ballet meets Swing

by Paul HomiczMay 2023

Ballet: dancers on the tips of their toes, wearing tights and tutus
Swing music: Drums, bass, and brass, with a beat that has you tapping your foot.

Are these two art forms diametrically opposed? Is each in its own camp, with never a twain ever meeting?

Sue Palmer & her Motel Swing Orchestra. Photo by Nick Abadilla.

The San Diego Ballet will be answering that question this month with two shows on May 20th and 21st, when San Diego’s Queen of Boogie-Woogie Sue Palmer and her Motel Swing Orchestra join the ballet company for Eight to the Barre, the world premier that will have members of the San Diego Ballet dancing to the sound of the big bass, drums, and horns.

The production seems like an inevitable collaboration. Sue Palmer had a long-time association with Candye Kane, performing and touring with the late blues singer for years. “Javier Velasco is a friend of mine,” says Palmer. “He wrote the play of Candye Kane’s biography, The Toughest Girl Alive. It was a musical, and I was the musical director. So, I had worked with him before. We also have a whole circle of friends in common.”

We can often think of ballet as rarified and set apart from more common musical and dance expressions, with music of Tchaikovsky and Strauss performed by the Bolshoi and other folks with long Russian names. But the practice of drawing on popular or folk music has been part of the tradition of ballet for generations. Stravinsky relied on primal rhythms for the pagan Rite of Spring. American composer Aaron Copeland drew on the musical traditions of folk songs and church hymns when he composed for Martha Grahams “Appalachian Spring.”

Palmer is known as the Queen of Boogie-Woogie, but the ballet will have more emphasis on swing. When Velasco asked Palmer if she wanted to work on a ballet, it was a no-brainer. “Javier, I love working with him,” she says. “I gave him a list of songs and recorded them so he could choreograph them. Most of it is original stuff, but there are Gershwin tunes and other swing melodies.” The songs include “Swingo,” a melding of swing and tango, so a bit of Latin flavor will be part of the program, too.

Sue with SD Ballet artistic director, Javier Velasco.

Palmer had assumed that she and the band would be off stage or in a pit, but the plan is for the band to be on stage as part of the show. She and the Motel Swing Orchestra will be with the ballet during the first half of the performance, which will be a first, a world premier. The second part of the evening will be a revival of Opus Swing!, which was the San Diego Ballet’s first comingling of jazz and ballet, featuring the music from giants of the swing and big band eras: Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman.

Palmer has been wowing San Diego audiences since the 1970s. She and her Motel Swing Orchestra have been a mainstay at Humphrey’s Backstage Live, Tio Leo’s, and a number of other San Diego hot spots. She has toured internationally and was inducted into the San Diego Music hall of Fame in 2018. The San Diego native has recorded a whole bunch of CDs, all of which are great toe-tapping crowd pleasers.

The Motel Swing Orchestra consists of the same cohort of talented musicians who have performed together for years and years: Pete Harrison on bass, Sharon Shufelt on drums, Steve Wilcox on guitar, with April West on Trombone and Johnny Viau on sax. “And we’re working with a new singer,” says Palmer. “Liz Ajuzie, she’s fabulous! Young and talented, she sings like Sarah Vaughn.”

San Diego Ballet dancers.

For more than 30 years, the San Diego Ballet has distinguished itself by redefining what audiences might expect from a ballet. They have received a great deal of critical acclaim for their original work with outstanding composers, performers, and musicians. These include Sweet Synergy Suite by local saxophonist and jazz legend Charles McPherson, Sweet Dreams,” which features the music of country music legend Patsy Cline, and The Brontes, a musical based on everyone’s favorite band of literary sisters. The San Diego Ballet has worked with the San Diego Symphony, San Diego Chamber Orchestra, and the “break the barriers” classical ensemble Camarada. They have been voted the number one dance troupe in the San Diego Union Tribune reader’s poll.

Javier Velsaco has enjoyed a noteworthy career as a choreographer, providing direction for the La Jolla Playhouse, the Old Globe, and San Diego Repertory Theatre, where he has provided direction for Cabaret, Hairspray, and the Who’s Tommy. He is excited about this new collaboration with Palmer, saying, “This program gets at the heart of what makes San Diego Ballet special and a true hometown company. We are coming full-circle with the restaging of Opus Swing! and my creative collaboration with long-time friend, Sue Palmer. And I know the program will have meaning as well as enjoyment.”

Palmer echoes Velasco’s excitement. “This is a new venture for me and the orchestra. I’ve never done anything like this!”

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