May 3, 2017

Princeton University Performs Ballet With Rarely Heard Cole Porter Score

Two years ago, Princeton University music professor Simon Morrison was working on an article in the archives of Yale University when he noticed the original score for a ballet by none other than Cole Porter. Within the Quota, which had libretto, scenery, and costumes by wealthy expatriate artist Gerald Murphy, premiered in Paris in 1923 and was Porter’s only commission for a ballet.

With its then-timely theme of immigration, Within the Quota was performed by a Swedish company, Ballet Suedois, to successful reviews in Europe and on an American tour. But when the troupe folded soon after, the work largely disappeared, said Mr. Morrison, who is widely known as an expert in Russian, Soviet, and French 20th century music and dance.

Mr. Morrison began to think about reviving the work. “Porter had surrendered the task of orchestration to someone in Europe, and it was kind of bombastic, and not really in his style,” he said. “When I found it in the archives, I thought about doing a jazz-era arrangement. I tinkered with it on and off. Then Trump happened.”

President Donald Trump’s attempted immigration restrictions galvanized Mr. Morrison to put together a production. Enlisting Princeton University Ballet as dancers and students from Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart to create projections, and arranging for the Penguin Cafe Orchestra of London to play the score, he set the wheels in motion. Within the Quota is the centerpiece of a performance set for Thursday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the University campus.

The original characters in the ballet — a strutting vaudevillian, a cowboy, a movie star, an heiress — have been updated. The task of choreography has fallen to Princeton sophomore Julia Jansen, who is artistic director of Princeton University Ballet. “It has been a challenging but crazy process,” she said this week. “It has been in the works since last fall, when I was a freshman. It became more of a concrete production in the fall, and I began the choreographic process in January.”

The idea of updating the immigration theme made sense. “It was originally done in Paris as a reaction to the nativist immigration process. When we were discussing it, given the election results and the current administration, we thought we really should re-adapt it to a more contemporary stance, and create a conversation about immigration,” Ms. Jansen said. “We began to discuss how to reinterpret the characters to reflect the 21st century. We kept the heiress character, but made her a representative of the one percent. We wanted to reflect the inequality and the income gap of today, while also focusing on feminism and gender inequality.”

The ambitious project is Ms. Jansen’s first attempt at choreographing a full ballet. “It’s been a fantastic opportunity,” she said. “I got the chance to have a lot of communication with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. I listened to the score and had to create movement representing abstract concepts. It forced me to think outside the box and push myself as a choreographer and a dancer.”

The Stuart connection came about through Mr. Morrison’s wife, Elizabeth Bergman, who teaches history at the school. Ms. Bergman and Stuart’s technology innovation specialist Alicia Testa collaborated on the project, which was carried out by two classes of 11th graders — 27 students in all. As with the original production of the ballet, the students created projections showing the front page of a newspaper, this time reflecting current events of today.

“We taught them a bit of Adobe Illustrator and gave them a template based on the New York Times, so it would look somewhat similar to the New York Times website,” Ms. Testa said. “I helped them with the technology of getting the information in, and Elizabeth helped them look for photos and images that would all blend in together.”

Ms. Bergman had the students delve into current events by reading the Times and other papers including the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. “It was an exercise in critical thinking,” she said. “They had to apply their historical knowledge and understanding of current events with the technology. It was a great blending of the two worlds.”

The original ballet was a protest against immigration restrictions, a reaction to a series of quotas passed in 1921 by Congress. Ultimately, the reconstructed production provides hope. “It ends with a positive message,” said Ms. Jansen. “Despite opposing forces, we wanted to create a final image representative of unification and coming together.”

Plans are for the Penguin Cafe Orchestra to take the score of Within the Quota to other locations next year, including Spectrum Dance Theatre in Seattle and the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. “The orchestra is interested in doing more stuff with dance, so this worked out well,” said Mr. Morrison. “The music is gorgeous, and the plot is immigration, so it’s appropriate.”