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Arts and Theater 1
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Black Tie International:
1st Annual Duke Ellington "Beyond  Category" Award


Frank Owens, Mercedes Ellington & Jon Weber


Frank Owens, Mercedes Ellington & Jon Weber.  
Photo by:  Russ Weatherford







Music Provided by Piano Greats Frank Owens and Jon Weber

In a “Battle of the Hands” Duel between Piano Virtuosos;


Vocalists Adam Wade and Catherine Russell and

Ballroom Dancers Sasha Chernositov and Regina Maziarz Also Performed


Saddler Toasted by Some of His Former Theatre and Ballet Collaborators, Including

Marge Champion, Helen Gallagher, Carmen De Lavallade,
Valentina Kozlova,

Virginia Sandifur and  Mercedes Ellington


New York, NY, June 13, 2011 --The legendary choreographer/dancer/theatre director  Donald Saddler was awarded the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts’ 1st Annual Duke Ellington “Beyond Category” Award at a special tribute performance last night (Monday, June 13, 2011) in Merkin Concert Hall at the Elaine Kaufman Center in New York City. The award show was a fund-raiser in support of the Duke Ellington Arts Scholarship Fund.

Renowned pianists Frank Owens and Jon Weber, who had never before performed together, provided an evening of sensational dual piano artistry as they performed numbers reflecting the changing musical tastes of the six decades in which Saddler performed, choreographed and directed on Broadway, on television and in feature films.

The evening was produced and hosted by Mercedes Ellington, the renowned choreographer/dancer who worked with Saddler on several productions, including No. No Nanette in the 1970s. Ms. Ellington, granddaughter of the legendary Duke Ellington and Founder and President of The Duke Ellington Center for the Arts, assembled a “cast” of dance world luminaries whose careers were influenced by Donald Saddler. They included former Bolshoi and New York City prima ballerina Valentina Kozlova, who starred in the Broadway revival of On Your Toes with Saddler in the early 1980’s; Marge Champion, a longtime friend of Saddler’s who danced with him ten years ago on Broadway, in the revival of Follies (2001), and more recently on the stage of Merkin Concert Hall three years ago—as seen in the documentary Keep Dancing, released in 2010; Helen Gallagher, another long time friend and collaborator of Saddler, who gave Ms. Gallagher her first opportunity to choreograph when he hired her to work with him as an assistant on a Shakespeare in the Park production more than 30 years ago; and Carmen De Lavillade, a modern dancer who was hired by Saddler to perform a ballet with him when she was just starting out. “It was an exciting moment that I have never forgotten,” she recalled. Other reminiscences were provided by Virginia Sandifur and Kate Irving, daughter of Saddler’s longtime friend, actor
George S. Irving

Throughout the evening, as host, Mercedes Ellington was supposedly speaking by cell phone to Donald Saddler, who currently resides in The Actor’s Home in Englewood, NJ, and was not well enough to attend last night’s tribute, the dynamic piano virtuosos Jon Weber and Frank Owens entertained the Merkin Concert Hall audience with their interpretations of musical selections from such Broadway musicals as Fancy Free, On The Town, Follies, The Robber Bridegroom, No, No Nanette and On Your Toes – shows closely associated with Donald Saddler’s illustrious career.  Following each tribute by the guests toasting Mr. Saddler, the dueling pianists “duked” it out with selections from those productions as well as from Babes in Arms, Love Me Tonight, Jumbo and some of their own surprises.

Throughout the evening, singers Adam Wade and Catherine Russell came onstage to perform several other songs from productions associated with Donald Saddler. Focusing on Saddler’s artistry as a dancer and choreographer, Sasha Chernositov and Regina Maziarz, two brilliant young ballroom dancers provided by Melanie La Patin and Dance Times Square, performed four beautiful dance routines that received standing ovations. 

The evening came to an exciting end when Ms. Ellington unveiled the first Duke Ellington “Beyond Category” (Top Hat) Award that will be delivered to Donald Saddler this week. The award, a beautiful glass trophy hand engraved with an image of Duke Ellington wearing his signature top hat, was designed by Joel Iskowitz and hand engraved by Joseph Callari,

Reaffirming its commitment to support individual excellence” beyond category,” The Duke Ellington Center for the Arts this year established a charitable endowment to fund scholarships for arts education. The endowment supports scholarships through The Duke Ellington “Beyond Category” Award, which was presented last night to its first honoree, Donald Saddler. Nicknamed “The Top Hat,” the award will be presented annually to individuals who have demonstrated achievements beyond category. The Award recipient determines the school to receive each year’s scholarship. Mr. Saddler will identify that school within the next four to six weeks. Initial funding for this endowment was made by Joanne Woodward, the multi-talented award winning actress and friend of Duke Ellington, through the Fairfield County Community Foundation, a Connecticut-based charity. 

Mercedes Ellington produced and directed the tribute to Donald Saddler. Russ Weatherford, a Board member of The Duke Ellington Center for the Arts, wrote the script. Femi Sarah Heggie was the stage manager. Other members of the production team included Kent Drake, Marilyn Lester and Dr. Otto Starzmann. Les Schecter and LS Communications provided the publicity and public relations.

The Duke Ellington “Beyond Category” Award is one of many honors Donald Saddler has received in a remarkable career that began in 1937. They include two Tony Awards, one Drama Desk Award, as well as numerous nominations and Lifetime Achievement Awards. He is a founding member of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and a contemporary of Duke Ellington who eventually became the mentor of Duke’s granddaughter, Mercedes.  As a director, Saddler’s involvement in musical theatre, feature films and television productions pertaining to the world of dance marked the industry for decades. Even at the age of 81, he enchanted Broadway audiences by performing the adagio in the Broadway revival of Follies with Marge Champion. The subject of several documentaries and TV specials, Donald’s love of dance was the theme of the highly regarded 2010 film Keep Dancing. Donald Saddler is truly an artist “beyond Category”!


Joyce Brooks

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