When artistic director Dennis Nahat began work on the production "Blue Suede Shoes" for the 20th anniversary of the Cleveland Ballet, he zeroed in on another city: Detroit.
Eastern Detroit, more specifically, is where Nahat grew up. His memories provide the inspiration and elements for this unique ballet - a 36-song retrospective of Elvis Presley combining the flavor of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s in the fittings of classical ballet.
Though the foundation of "Blue Suede Shoes" is Elvis's music - the production was granted special permission to use original master recordings - the character of Elvis doesn't appear onstage. The ballet, rather, tells the story of a group of high-schoolers as they make the passage to adulthood.
Performed by the Cleveland Ballet, a dance company of national stature, the production is filled with lively performances and impressive sets.
"We tried to design all the characters after real people," said Nahat in a backstage interview after a recent performance. The lead characters - a jock, a nerd, and a kid from the wrong side of the tracks - are based on people he knew from his school days.
In fact, Nahat sheepishly admits, the nerd resembles his own high school persona.
The ballet begins with the scene "High School," in which six Elvis selections evoke the youthful charms of the '50s. The three main characters make their entrance fitted with soft-soled blue shoes, which accentuate the title piece's fancy footwork. The ensemble dancers, utilizing traditional ballet steps, entertaining acrobatics, and dance moves reminiscent of the '50s, portray the mostly happy days of dating and hanging out with friends.
From here the characters segue into six other music-filled scenes, including "Hot Dog Drive-In," "In the Army," and "Jailhouse." Among the Elvis favorites featured are "Don't Be Cruel (To a Heart That's True)," "Love Me Tender," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "Hound Dog."
Grouping Elvis's music into themed scenes means that even well-versed Elvis fans can learn something about his music. For one, the songs aren't arranged in chronological order, putting them in a different light; and because selections from different albums are juxtaposed, there are opportunities for comparisons and contrasts that may not have been considered before.
Seeing ballet steps instead of the King's trademark sashaying hip movements adds a further dimension. New avenues of interpreting the music are opened up as the songs are put to well-thought-out, storytelling choreography. "Love Me Tender," for example, doesn't focus on romance, but shows one of the characters expressing patriotic devotion.
"Blue Suede Shoes" not only offers insight into Elvis, but also into ballet. Nahat's choreography shows how the classical look of ballet - body positions and poses that make long lines, lift in the upper body, and even the use of pointe shoes - can fit comfortably in a modern setting. And when Nahat combines balletic elements with more modern moves, such as in a disco scene near the end, it suggests that much of modern dance comes from the solid foundation of ballet.
A few moments of Nahat's choreography may come as a surprise. In one scene, a small amount of partial nudity is incorporated humorously into the dance, and in another, characters change clothes onstage, though underwear is kept intact.
Though scenery and costumes are usually auxiliary to a performance, here the sets are so dazzling and lavish they're on a par with the dancing itself. The scenery by Hollywood designer Bob Mackie is beautifully painted in electric colors, and it elicited applause from the audience several times. Particularly stunning was the opening set, where a larger-than-life cutout of a guitar hung above center stage; it was straddled by the huge cutouts of two blue shoes, which stood on their points.
Mackie also designed the production's 280 costumes, which sported vivid colors and immediately brought to life the times of Elvis.
In recent years, numerous ballet companies have undertaken projects like "Blue Suede Shoes" that meld modern and traditional elements. The Boston Ballet, for example, presents "Hot & Cool" each spring to help attract young audiences who would not necessarily be interested in full-length traditional ballets such as "Sleeping Beauty." The Joffrey Ballet hit box-office gold with its dance "Billboards," set to the music of Prince.
But Nahat says his idea for "Blue Suede Shoes" grew separately from any trend. A longtime fan of Elvis, he's been cultivating a dream of choreographing an Elvis ballet for years. The seeds were planted in 1956, when Nahat saw Elvis perform in Detroit's Fox Theater.
Nahat's inspiration has found realization in a year that not only celebrates the ballet's 20th anniversary, but also the 10th anniversary of a performing co-venture the company has established in San Jose, Calif.
"Blue Suede Shoes" also follows on the heels of last year's grand opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located a few streets away from the ballet's home at the 75-year-old State Theatre.
* 'Blue Suede Shoes' has concluded its run in Cleveland but is planning a national tour. Cities include Detroit, April 14-20, 1997; San Jose, Calif., April 24-27, 1997; and Memphis, August 1997. For information, call (216) 621-2260.