It earned the nickname “Motor City” or “Motown” because it was the center of the country’s automotive industry, but today, Detroit is just as famous for Motown music, a style of soul with a pop appeal that made its way into the radio charts in the early 1960s. Even if you were born too late to have heard hits like “Shop Around” by The Miracles and “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes when they first were released, you probably know their catchy tunes and lyrics.
This Friday, November 6, at the Lobero Theatre, Motown gets a 21st-century twist when State Street Ballet teams up with Eisenhower Dance Ensemble, a contemporary repertory company from Detroit, to present Motown in Motion. It’s an evening-length dance production set to more than 15 of Motown’s best-known tunes, and it marks the first time State Street Ballet has ever collaborated with another professional dance company.
The end of 2009 marks a busy season for State Street’s dancers, who just returned to town from touring Cinderella, which came hot on the heels of The Jungle Book at the Granada. But Rodney Gustafson, director of the company, says the timing for this show is appropriate, citing the death of Michael Jackson and the 50th anniversary of Motown Records. “I just think it’s cool because it’s East Coast meets West Coast,” he said. “They’re from Detroit where Motown started, and Motown made people like Michael Jackson famous.”
Indeed, a visit these days to the record label’s Web site, motown.com, brings up a memorial page to MJ, featuring the artist when he still had dark skin and an Afro. As Eisenhower Dance Ensemble Artistic Director Laurie Eisenhower pointed out, the significance of Motown was that it achieved mainstream popularity for compositions that until that point had been pigeonholed as “black music.” “All my research told me that Motown changed the music industry quite a bit,” she explained on the phone from Detroit last week. “Berry Gordy was interested in taking music that traditionally had not been accepted in the white community and crossing it over. He knew if you wanted to make it big, you’d have to appeal to everyone-and he did it.”
For the most part, Motown in Motion goes back to the early days of Motown, when, as Eisenhower put it, “there was a sort of a formula to the music-an amazing rhythmic structure and similar tempos-a particular sound. There was even a formula to how they dressed the artists. Gordy gave his groups charm lessons and manners, put them in white gloves; there was a whole look to how he wanted to put his artists up there on the stage.”
By comparison, Motown in Motion is staged simply, with lighting serving as the primary set design. Aside from the music, the main focus here is on the dancing, which Gustafson calls a combination of contemporary and street dance.
Eisenhower first staged Motown in Motion in 2000, and has recruited various choreographers to contribute short pieces to the program since then. The State Street Ballet collaboration marks the first time the show will be seen on the West Coast, as well as the first time it will include a Michael Jackson tribute. As part of this production, a group of dancers from the community will perform a number to the Motown classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The hope is that the two companies will take their collaboration back to Detroit next year to perform in Motown itself.
In the meantime, Eisenhower’s dancers arrived in Santa Barbara on Sunday, November 1, to begin rehearsals with State Street Ballet and help the more classically trained dancers get up to speed on the show’s contemporary, theatrical style of dance. If it all goes as planned, the results will make you want to sing along to “How Sweet It Is.”
State Street Ballet and the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble present Motown in Motion at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Friday, November 6, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.