What do you get when you combine a British-born and -trained choreographer with the foremost contemporary dance company in Denmark, made up of dancers from around the globe performing to classic jazz songs from the Great American Songbook, as sung by an acclaimed vocalist who is half-Swedish? You get Tim Rushton’s “Love Songs,” which Danish Dance Theatre brings to Boston March 16-17. The Celebrity Series engagement is part of a rare US tour by the company, which gave the American premiere of “Love Songs” this month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The evening-length “Love Songs” puts a European twist on such American jazz classics as “My Funny Valentine,” “All of Me,” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” For Rushton, 49, Danish Dance Theatre’s artistic director, the music sparked very different choreography than he had done in the past, not just stylistically, but in terms of dimension, structure, and energy.
“My major body of works revolves around very serious classical music, which is my second-biggest passion,” Rushton said recently by phone from Copenhagen. “Moving over to the jazz world in some ways was taboo for myself. But I felt very much the warmth and generosity that comes with jazz, and it was great to see how it worked together with my way of working.”
Rushton says the piece is directly inspired by the music, which is sung on tape by his friend, the noted jazz singer Caroline Henderson, who is half-American, half-Swedish. “We’d talked for several years about doing something together with old Swedish folk songs, which are very, very beautiful, but it just never came up,” Rushton recalled. “Then I saw one of her jazz concerts and was blown over by her presence and energy, and the project just happened. I wanted to make something rough and honest that was not necessarily linear in its telling, something that was like little vignettes together on a string that gave the feeling of a late-night jazz club.”
Though Danish Dance Theatre is resolutely contemporary, Rushton’s grounding is in ballet, an art form initially quite foreign to his family in England’s West Midlands. Rushton’s enthusiasm for ballet was kindled when he saw “The Nutcracker” on television as a child, but his father would have none of it. Finding an ally in his grandmother, Rushton took his first dance class in a room at the village Methodist church, wearing a secondhand pair of oversized red shoes that he has to this day.
By age 16, Rushton was accomplished enough to win admission to the Royal Ballet Upper School, where he found himself in the same building as some of his ballet idols. After graduation and until the mid-1990s, he performed with a number of Northern European ballet companies. There he was exposed to the work of contemporary choreographers such as Roland Petit and Jirí Kylián, which began to inflame his own choreographic impulses. It was during his stint with the Royal Danish Ballet that he found himself disillusioned with the idea of dancing yet another “Giselle” or “Swan Lake.” So at 23, he retired from performing and put his considerable energy into creating his own work.
In 2001, Rushton was appointed artistic director of the then-troubled Danish Dance Theatre. He has since put the company on the international map. The troupe is Denmark’s largest modern dance company and, through Rushton’s choreography, has become known for dances of explosive energy, powerful imagery, clean lines, and elegant athleticism.
In 2011, Rushton was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his contributions to dance. For him, choreography is all about “translation of feelings,” a form of direct communication that takes off where words end. “I’m a very bad speaker,” he said ruefully, “but I do thrive on the energy of music and musicality, and I absolutely love the physical communication of dance — between dancers, between choreographer and dancers, between dancers and the public. It’s very direct.” He sees himself as a “classicist on modern ground,” and the lush physicality of his work tends to find balance within strong technical forms.
Martin Wechsler, director of programming for New York’s Joyce Theater, which hosted a monthlong Danish Dance Theatre residency in 2007, saw the world premiere of Rushton’s “Love Songs” in Copenhagen in 2011. “He took the idea of love and its pursuit and explored it in many different facets with different styles of intricate, unusual partnering,” Wechsler said. “He responds to the lyrics of the songs as well as goes beyond them to show different relationships between people in his own style.”
“It uses jazz,” Celebrity Series president and executive director Gary Dunning said, “but not like Bob Fosse jazz — a more European interpretation. It’s quite loose-limbed and fluid, quick and athletic, and the dancers have a willingness to go to the ground. It’s accessible, but quite challenging for the dancers.” Dunning is particularly taken with the work’s use of space: foreground and background framing, and a special floor mid-stage for the main action.
For audiences who saw Danish Dance Theatre’s Boston debut in 2010, the upbeat nature of “Love Songs” may be a bit of a surprise. “I have a tendency to be serious, slightly heavy,” Rushton said. “This is actually a very feel-good piece. One of the things I try to do is to test my own boundaries, to renew. This was one of the most fun, and most challenging, works I’ve done.”
He added, with a trace of bemusement and delight: “I came away thinking, ‘Oh, I enjoyed that. That was such fun.’ I surprised myself.”