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NEWS FEATURE: Granddaughter Sets Ellington’s Sacred Music to Dance

c. 2003 Religion News Service CLINTON, Md. _ As the vocalist sang the words to Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” the rhythmic movements choreographed by his granddaughter were in the feet of the dancers at Expressions Dance Theatre. Mercedes Ellington, the direct descendant of the jazz legend, has written new choreography to four of her grandfather’s […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

CLINTON, Md. _ As the vocalist sang the words to Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” the rhythmic movements choreographed by his granddaughter were in the feet of the dancers at Expressions Dance Theatre.

Mercedes Ellington, the direct descendant of the jazz legend, has written new choreography to four of her grandfather’s sacred compositions.

Their premiere, commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, will be at 7 p.m. Friday (Nov. 14) at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington.

“I think not a lot of people are aware of the versatility of Duke Ellington,” his granddaughter said in a telephone interview days before the premiere.

“I know that he said that this was the … single most important work he ever did _ all of the sacred music that he composed.”

The elder Ellington, who always traveled with a Bible, hated the term “jazz musician” and preferred to be called an “American composer,” she said.

“He never limited himself,” she said. “His mother told him that he didn’t have any limits, so he believed her.”

Those limitless genes must have been passed down to her, for those performing and observing the granddaughter’s choreography at a dance rehearsal in suburban Washington spoke especially of her variety of motion.

Tamara Brown, a cultural historian at the Anacostia Museum and a dancer in the performance, ticks off the range of movements featured _ African. Hip hop. Modern. Jazz.

And precision dance _ from Mercedes Ellington’s time as a June Taylor dancer on “The Jackie Gleason Show.”

“This really shows her experience with different dance genres,” said Brown.

While three of the four pieces have been set to dance before, Mercedes Ellington is the first to link dancers with “Come Sunday.”

In that piece, little girls dance with adults as a soloist’s soaring voice urges God to “see my people through.”

On top of the multimedia performance of a vocalist, jazz ensemble and liturgical dance, Mercedes Ellington adds another layer: sign language.

The adult dancers stand side by side in a line facing the audience, pointing their right index and middle fingers to their eyes and then stretching their hands toward the audience in the sign for “see.”

“Sometimes less is more,” Mercedes Ellington said of her decision to use the nonverbal language. “A big dance step might be athletically pleasing but a simple movement with the arms or the hand or the head may be sometimes more effective.”

And the inclusion of children in the piece, whose faces are touched by the adults and whose hands are held by them, is also purposeful.

“In the Scriptures, they said the little children shall lead us,” she said.

The little girls, dressed in white angel costumes, also perform by themselves in “Almighty God Has Those Angels.” In part of that dance, they hold hands and weave in and out under their clasped arms in a variation of the classic childhood game of “Bluebird, bluebird through my window.”

The processional for the concert is “`Will You Be There,” in which dancers dramatically enter the sanctuary with battery-operated candles as the choir sings “Will you be there? Will your name be called?”

“I wanted the church to be really as dark as possible because their candles should be a vision … of the people coming out into the light from the darkness,” she said of the piece that questions who will make it to heaven.

The performance, which includes a total of 14 Ellington pieces, closes with “Praise God and Dance.”

Based on Psalm 150, which includes the words “Praise him with timbrel and dance,” the piece has minor musical tones and exuberant kicks, turns and skips during a horn-heavy instrumental section.

The Rev. Nolan Williams Jr., music minister at Metropolitan Baptist, said he appreciates the festiveness of the psalm-based work.

“It is just most exuberant, high energy,” he said in a phone interview. “I think if heaven could be likened unto an experience, it comes pretty close to what I think heaven will be like.”

Steven Newsome, director of the Anacostia Museum said the senior Ellington’s three sacred concerts, first performed in San Francisco, New York and Europe, were groundbreaking.

“It broke … through walls for the religious community,” he said. “Because it introduced _ or maybe, in reality, reintroduced _ the appropriateness of what we might consider secular sounds in the sacred environment.”

That music, first introduced in the 1960s, continues to be performed today in concerts like the one in Washington.

Mercedes Ellington, who describes herself as “a composer of dances and situations,” said she has choreographed music from the sacred concerts on other occasions. Those dances _ created between her work on Broadway and representing her famous family _ have been featured in New York and Chicago.

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Caroline Shuttlesworth, another dancer in the Washington concert and the daughter of civil rights activist and clergyman Fred Shuttlesworth, said the sacred nature of the performance is her focus.

“We’re bringing to our work a sense of our purpose, which is upliftment and praise at the same time,” she said. “So it’s going two ways _ from us to the audience and from us to God.”

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Overall, Williams said the experience does just what Ellington’s granddaughter said the musical master wanted: It reaches beyond boundaries.

“I think the significance of having it in a sanctuary is that really broadens the concept of what worship is,” he said. “It’s always important to stretch our boundaries and to never become complacent in our understanding of God and how God moves.”

Mercedes Ellington, who was raised Catholic but is comfortable in a variety of worship settings, said she believes “dancing to the Scriptures” can reach the same levels of performance as secular dance while respecting the religion on which it is based.

“A lot of religions believe that dancing and singing are sacrilegious,” she said. “This is what is in the Bible. It said praise God and dance.”

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