Shatner, ballet and Brew City: Beam me up
Podcast: William Shatner on the Milwaukee Ballet interpreting his music
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The baritone voice on the other end of the phone Monday afternoon was warm, rich, resonant and haltingly, hauntingly familiar. William Shatner has used it to perform Shakespeare, emcee game shows and deliver some of the more memorable lines in TV history: "Beam me up, Scotty." ("Star Trek"); "Cuff him. Then wash your hands." ("T.J. Hooker"); "Denny Crane." ("Boston Legal").
Shatner's voice also created unforgettable music, such as the oft-parodied "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" on the much-maligned 1968 release "The Transformed Man," and a provocative cover of Pulp's "Common People" from "Has Been," Shatner's critically-acclaimed 2004 collaboration with Ben Folds. (Here is a video of "Common People" performed on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.")The Shatner-Folds songs struck a chord with Margo Sappington, virtuoso choreographer who often works with the Milwaukee Ballet, which will feature Shatner's work during "Premieres of Passionate Dance" performances Feb. 15-18 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
"I'm very excited by it all," said Shatner, reached in Los Angeles during a break in shooting "Boston Legal." "It's a very rare occurrence for any piece of music. I'm thrilled that the ballet company is doing this. It's monumental, actually. I'm going to strive to get there for one of those performances. It's a matter of my shooting schedule on "Boston Legal." But, if I have a couple of days (off) during which the ballet is on, I'm going to get up there."
Shatner is so honored and excited about the tribute that he will plans on attending the performances if his schedule permits.
Shatner, a 75-year-old Montreal native who was recently inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame, said the call from the Milwaukee Ballet caught him was both thrilling and unexpected.
"I never thought (of this music) in terms of ballet. I just thought of writing music and performing it and getting it out there," he said. "When I was called by the ballet company to ask whether I would go along with it, I was thrilled.
"It's very rare when somebody wants to come along and dance, which is another whole art form. To take the dance art and apply it to my record is an extraordinary compliment, because it takes so long to choreograph it and there is so much literal blood and sweat and tears that go into making a ballet.
"When a choreographer chooses a piece of music and decides to create a ballet, it's as much of a commitment as reading a book or creating a screen play or writing a stage play. It's a commitment of time and energy and the performers who then have to obligate themselves to hours and hours of rehearsal and learning. It is an extraordinary gift by all those people to make this ballet."
Though his resume includes everything from "Howdy Doody" to "The Brothers Karamzov," Shatner's connection to the ballet has been as a fan.
"I never studied dance, but I've always had a keen appreciation for ballet from very early on," he said. "I was friends with several members of the Canadian ballet company when it was first forming. As a result of that association, I've followed ballet all my life. Ballet, the movement of the human body is as much a symphony as music is. To come to motion like that and to see the human body in that grace and that rhythm is to understand the sublimeness of the human form."
Though "The Transformed Man" is regularly lampooned as one of the worst albums of the age, Shatner threw his critics a pair of curveballs by first mocking his delivery in commercials and then pairing with Folds on songs that are raw and straightforward in both music and lyrics. That's what drew Sappington's attention.
"All the music to which they're dancing comes out of Ben Folds' mind," Shatner said of his partner, whom he calls "a genius musician." "The lyrics, in most cases, are mine. His music stemmed from my words. It all is a tree in which everything contributes."
In an interview following the release of "Has Been," Folds told a reporter: "If I thought that there were heaps of artists who were willing to be so honest, vulnerable, creative and trusting for their producer, I'd just be a producer. But, for now, I keep my day job and produce a William Shatner album every once in a while."
Shatner said he informed Folds about the Milwaukee Ballet via e-mail, but has not spoken to his partner in person. Folds has been touring in Europe and could return to the states in time for the performance.
"He's been on the road," Shatner said. "I don't know yet what his reaction is, but I'm hopeful that he'll emerge momentarily."
Asked if he had performed in Milwaukee, Shatner said he did a play at "one of your theaters," but couldn't recall which. If his schedule allows, he'll return with his wife, Elizabeth, next month to watch dancers perform against the backdrop of his lyrics and Folds' music.
"Valentine's Day is our anniversary," Shatner said. "My hope is that I'll be there."
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