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A gypsy jazz ballet ready to roll into the Harris Theater

Choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt’s fascination with gypsies is no accident. As he explains it, at least one of the reasons behind the creation of “Day of the Gypsy,” his latest full-length contemporary ballet — the RPM Production that will receive its world premiere Nov. 21 and 22 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance — has to do with his grandfather.

“My mother, who lived to be 92, told me the story of how her father, who grew up in what was then Czechoslovakia, spent time with gypsies there. As she told it, my grandfather’s mother died young, his father married the maid, and that woman proceeded to kick the kid out of the house. So he lived with gypsies for a while, learned to be a carpenter, and then headed to the U.S. to avoid the draft.”

‘DAY OF THE GYPSY’

When: Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 22 at 3 p.m.

Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $20 – $75

Info: http://www.HarrisTheaterChicago.org

As it happens, Schmidt’s spinning of original gypsy tales has quite a long history, beginning as far back as the 1980s when he created “By Django,” a work for the students of the Ruth Page School of Dance. The piece was picked up by Ballet Chicago, and then danced by the Grand Rapids Ballet, which Schmidt directed from 1998 to 2010.

“One of the main drives drives behind all this was my love for the music of Django Reinhardt,” said Schmidt, referring to the French-Belgian Romani guitarist and composer who lived from 1910 to 1953, made the guitar a crucial element in European jazz musician, and introduced the “hot jazz” swing style along with violinist Stephane Grappelli.

But Schmidt wanted to create a work that could be performed to live music, and in 2009 he found the way to do that.

Choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt. | PHOTO BY ANDY TERZES

Choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt. (Photo: Andy Terzes)

“I finally found out about John Jorgenson, the multiple Grammy Award-winning guitarist who has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan and Elton John to Roy Orbison and Bonnie Raitt, and even portrayed Reinhardt in a movie,” said Schmidt. “He tours with his own gypsy jazz ensemble, the John Jorgenson Quintet (two guitars, bass, violin and percussion) and he agreed to create an original score for us – inspired by Django Reinhardt’s music, with some flamenco and Louis Armstrong-style swing in the mix.”

An abbreviated work-in-progress titled “Journee des Tziganes,” was performed at the Athenaeum Theatre in 2014, with Jorgenson’s Quintet on stage with the dancers. Sections of that ballet have now been incorporated into the expanded “Day of the Gypsy,” with Jorgenson’s Quintet set to play for the Harris Theater performances, too.

The story Schmidt spins revolves around Yumelia, an independent and passionate gypsy girl who encounters a magical silken scarf with the potential to do wondrous things. Yumelia is observed by the insidious Django, a sly, suave, streetwise gypsy who steals the scarf from her and uses it to conjure an Average Joe who is to steal Yumelia’s heart and then break it. But she enlists the aid of her gypsy clan to foil Django’s plan and set things right.

The 13 person cast for “Day of the Gypsy” is led by four dynamo freelancers ideally suited to Schmidt’s athletic but emotionally driven choreography: Yumelia Garcia (former principal dancer with Joffrey Ballet) as Yumelia; Randy Herrera (former principal dancer with Houston Ballet) as Django; Jennifer Goodman (former principal dancer with Joffrey Ballet) as Delilah, and Tom Mattingly (former principal dancer with Ballet West) as Average Joe.

The design team includes Joseph Jefferson Award-winner Jeff Bauer, whose set (lit by Julie Ballard and Jason Brown) suggests an outdoor gypsy theater complete with caravan.

The question must be asked: Why risk all by booking the ballet into the Harris, with its 1500 seats and large overhead?

“The Harris wanted us, and we wanted the size of that theater’s stage,” said Schmidt. “And we received a very generous matching grant from two couples — Patti Eylar and Charles Gardner, and Marsha and Philip Dowd. The idea is that this will become a touring work.”

To see video excerpts of “Day of the Gypsy” (from the Athenaeum edition of the work) visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iydLh0pqhRQ&utm_campaign=website&utm_source=sendgrid.com&utm_medium=email