Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts

Flyer: Ellington's Sacred Concerts, Oxford 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

Following The Tipton Project’s successful debut of co-compering The Greentop Circus Cabaret my journey from Sheffield back to London included a trip to Oxford University for the first of my tap dance gig’s this year. This was an exciting gig to be a feature tap dancer in, alongside the talents of saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock, jazz singer Tina May as well as the fabulous talents of the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra, the Schola Cantorum of Oxford and the enthusiastic and amazing music director, James Burton.

I ended up sharing a dressing room with the lovely, Tina May, whom I’d heard a lot about. We couldn’t figure out where we might have met before but it didn’t matter since we immediately gelled and understood where the other was coming from. The great thing about working with lovely, down-to-earth creative folk who enjoy their work but understand the preparation that’s needed is that you can balance chitter-chatter with those necessary still moments required to be alone and prepare. It’s comforting when you can find that unspoken understanding of space and silence preceding a gig without judgement.

We both sat watching the first half, invisible as performers in the gallery, and enjoyed the concert as much as you can with those pre-show nerves bubbling under the surface. When my nerves began to surface I was glad when Tina suggested we make our way backstage. I needed to get ready. As a dancer, I’ve learned to channel them into my performance but there’s always an “unknown factor” that keeps you on the edge. In this instance, part of my “unknown factor” was the essence of my performance – improvisation. During my first a cappella number, I danced through the audience. There’s not much planning for such a number – it’s completely improvised and dependent on the audience’s response. But that also means I really get to play with them and I really do like to play! We all had a ball, on and off stage, so I’d say the gig went well. It’s a shame I didn’t get enjoy the after-party social because I had to dash home to get ready for the next few weeks of projects.

Thank you flowers from Shola Cantorum of Oxford & OUJOThe Oxford University Jazz Orchestra is joined by Schola Cantorum of Oxford and conductor James Burton for a rare performance of Duke Ellington’s masterpiece. Featuring special guest vocalist Tina May and tap dancer Annette Walker, Ellington’s Sacred Concert is an overwhelming celebratory outpouring, and in the Duke’s view was the most important piece he ever composed.

Leweston Choral Society, Sacred Concert Rehearsal March 2015 https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152645637931976&l=b7c45098bdSunday 1st March 2015
Leweston School, Sherborne, Dorset

Road trip! If I wasn’t short on time I might have enjoyed the 6 hour roundtrip to Dorset. At least I had good company. I drove down from London with the drummer for the concert, Michele Drees. It took me an hour from my place to hers at 8 o’clock in the morning with no traffic. There I left my keyboard equipment at her place (I needed to take it with me to the B&B I was staying at in Watford so I could practice foe the WOW Orchestra gig during the evenings, after filming, for the gig the following weekend) and we packed her drum kit into my car along with the two tap boards I had.

We arrived by midday, in time to unload the car then dash to a local pub for Sunday lunch. This was good opportunity not only to get a decent meal but to meet the rest of the band members.

Sacred Concert - Leweston - Tap pianoBack at the school we had a full run through of the Sacred Concert with the Choral Society which included children, teacher’s and parents. It was encouraging to see a female conductor at this girls school. Straight after our rehearsal the kids who were singing solo jazz songs in the concert were up to rehearse. I had planned to grab dinner then take a nap before getting ready for the concert but that all changed when some of the girls told me of their concern for one of their friends.

A teenager was curled up in the corner of a room, racked with first time pre-show nerves. It’s moments like these I remember not only how getting up to perform requires finding that delicate balance between managing anxiety and delivering the goods, but how the intensity of a first performance can have such a strong emotional and physiological impact on the body. Although I’d learned to deal with nerves in dance over a number of years I remember quite clearly how nervous I was at my first tap jam in New York and how sweaty by hands got just before going on stage for my first piano solo performance with The Tipton Project. So I understood what this young girl was going through and the importance of how much it weighed on her mind. I spent time coaching her and was relieved that she not only got through her rehearsal, but held her nerve for the main performance.

When it came to my own performance I had to make sure I found the balance in energy. My worry was I was pushing myself too hard and might pass out from exhaustion! It’s only when you’re tired that you realise how much energy the waiting and anticipation can use up. It’s nerve-racking when doing an improvised performance in an unfamiliar space but also exciting.

I never know what’s going to happen or how the audience will respond. The funniest moment for me (and for some of the audience) was in my first number where I danced a cappella through the audience from the upstairs gallery, down the out of sight steps, onto a tap board at the back of the hall, down the aisle and to the front row where I was cheekily interacting to audience members, including the smiling nuns in habits, until I suddenly spotted the the stern, scary look from the vicar! So I carefully tapped away… It made getting up to dance on the specially made board on the piano a cinch!

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