On December 21 the Lambertville Historical Society and the Roxey Ballet Company joined up for the second annual performance of “A Very Lambertville Holiday Celebration.” The ballet, set to live and recorded music by local artists who have participated in the LHS holiday music fundraiser, included an unforgettable historical component: Richard Jarboe’s song “New Jersey Ballad” and the interpretation of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” as choreographed by Mark Roxey. We wanted to learn more about this performance, their collaboration, and their inspiration. Following is a lightly edited excerpt from a conversation with Mark Roxey and Richard Jarboe; watch the video here.
Michael Menche: You two first worked together in 1994. How did that come about?
Richard Jarboe: I had been writing for musical theater and then worked on a country-and-western ballet in Colorado. I got back home and found there was a new ballet company that opened in Prallsville Mills in Stockton, which was only two miles from my house. So, I went down and met Mark and Melissa Roxey. Our children joined their ballet school, and we started working together on a piece about Moby Dick that I’d written.
Mark Roxey: Melissa and I had come off a professional career dancing all over the world and we moved back to the area to be close to family. We love it here so much, so we started at the Prallsville Mills, which is the source of the name, “Mill Ballet School,” in the Linseed Oil building. Richard has been a compass, a musical guide, and he is our resident composer. We have developed an amazing way of working together—we have created over 30 works—and every couple of years we hit something pretty big.
Michael: How do you collaborate? How do you come up with a concept or a subject? Does the music always come first and then the dance?
Richard: I might come to Mark and say, “I just wrote this thing about Moby Dick and it kind of goes like this,” and if we do it, then we would produce that song. Once you get into production, you can add the drums or flutes or whatever to make the ears pop up, and then the dancers have something to dance to with rhythm. Mark has come to me with ideas like the boxing ballet we did, and that was stunning. That’s sort of how it happens—I hear a piece of music or I’ve written something I want to share, or he has an idea to do something and then we just start to roll it around until we get it.
Mark: A lot of our musical choices and collaborations have mirrored our journey in life. We follow what’s happening in the world, and there is a social and oftentimes a political underpinning in the music or in the actual show. Our art is imitating life, and we’re evolving as humans and artists.
Michael: Many of your collaborations have involved historical subjects. Why is history such fertile ground for you?
Richard: I’m always reading about history—it interests me. There are patterns of human behavior. If you’re trying to explain things to people and you can find an art form that makes them understand, you give them a metaphor, so they see the picture and they get what happened. In Trenton, say, the turning point of the American Revolution, I will remind you we didn’t lose a single man, so we were very blessed and there was a lot of Grace that created this country. When you think about that, you get pretty inspired. I was reading about Washington and how these people overcame—they didn’t have food or shoes and they were marching into Trenton, and they won without losing a man. I said to Mark, “We really should do something about New Jersey,” and so we did “I love New Jersey.”
Mark: Richard is an incredible student of history. We can deliver a historical context and relate it to what’s happening in the world today, which I think is one of the recipes that makes our work really resonate with people, because they’re looking back but they’re also connecting to what’s happening now. For example, when we do a performance like MLK and “I Have a Dream”, it is about that speech, and it is a commentary on where we are today with civil and human rights.
Michael: What have audiences said to you over the years about your historical works?
Mark: There are always positive comments! In a Roxey Ballet production, we’re really committed to inspiring the audience and leaving them breathless.
Michael: You said Richard’s “New Jersey Ballad” was the first song in “I Love New Jersey” in 2014. Was the performance this past December the same choreography as the original?
Mark: We do live theater, so when we get a chance to redo something or revive something, we’re always developing works and looking at what could be better. With “A Very Lambertville Holiday Celebration,” we thought it was a perfect opportunity to feature “New Jersey Ballad,” because the show is all local musicians and how could we not have Richard? The piece was staged so Richard comes into the party, says “Happy Holidays,” and then, “I want to give you a little history lesson.”
Michael: Can you talk a little bit about the choreography of the soldiers struggling and crossing the Delaware?
Mark: It’s always a very difficult thing to explain the choreographic process. I do my research, I look at costumes, I look at setting. I try to get some historical context—in this case how people acted, what they were facing. We experimented with different movements to depict what Richard was trying to get across. I believe “New Jersey Ballad” should be New Jersey’s official song! [Listen to “New Jersey Ballad” free here.] We don’t have a state song. When I first heard Richard’s song, it was simply the guitar, and it was stunning. Then Robert Sands, the amazing producer who worked with Richard, amplified the sound and I thought it was an epic piece of music. The dance performance to the song documents what happened at Washington Crossing, which is reenacted there onsite every year on Christmas Day.
Michael: The annual reenactment on Christmas Day at Washington Crossing Park was started by St. John Terrell, who founded the Lambertville Music Circus, where many of the greatest musicians performed.[Mark plays the video of the December 21 performance of “New Jersey Ballad”—watch it here.]
Michael: Magnificent! You make us proud to be New Jerseyans and Americans. I was in the audience with my family in December and when the tableau vivant occurred and the dancers were mimicking one of the most famous paintings in American history, I blurted out “Wow!” because it was unexpected and so wonderful. In the video you can hear the crowd cheering at that moment. Can you tell us about it?
Mark: It takes a lot of amazing dancers—professional dancers from all over the world who are incredibly generous with their time and effort. And we have a great costume team, led by Alicia Worden, who worked so hard to make the costumes identical to Leutze’s painting. The positions of the dancers are the same: who’s paddling, who’s on watch, who’s steering the boat. It’s meticulously laid out. The painting comes to life and breathes life into the genius music, and the costumes help make the vision come to be.
Michael: Richard, in the audience we could tell you were a little emotional on stage at one point. What were you experiencing up there?
Richard: Some years ago, I was at Washington Crossing Park when there was talk about closing it down, and I picked up that the spirits there were unhappy because nobody seemed to recognize what happened there and the suffering that went into it. So, I wrote this song. And on stage I was looking at performers who are telling a story and children who are watching, and everything that’s going on up there has some sense of significance that they’re not forgotten people who fought. I was thinking about the spirits that talked to me when I was at the site and I got choked up because if you can bring things to the table that spur peoples’ hearts, that’s a big deal. I have never really written anything for entertainment value, but rather to maybe send you home as a better person or as a person who might think a little bit harder about what’s going on on the planet and with your family, and what’s going on south of Lambertville and what happened there. Today, Lambertville is a very interesting place and will continue to become more interesting, and I’m just very happy that the local talents are merging to create a whole new bouquet of interesting things.
Mark: What’s beautiful about what we’re all doing together as a community is that we’re making the area a destination for performing arts.
Michael: Our collaboration on “A Very Lambertville Holiday Celebration” was conceived by Liz Riegel of the Lambertville Historical Society and Pinja Sinisalo of Roxey Ballet. They thought we should do something together based on LHS’s holiday compilations and concerts, which we’ve done for 11 years. When you are doing the right thing and assembling musicians and moving people, then something even better can happen—that’s how I view our collaboration. The inaugural performance in 2021 was fantastic and exceeded our expectations. Since we are the Lambertville Historical Society, let me ask you: what is your view of Lambertville as a home for your endeavors?
Mark: We absolutely adore it! In our early years we moved from Stockton to Lambertville, where we stayed for about 28 years until the flood destroyed our space. Now our studio is in New Hope and our office is in Frenchtown. We adore the river towns—Lambertville, New Hope, Frenchtown, Stockton, Washington Crossing, Titusville—they are so beautiful and there’s so much history, and the quality of life here is fantastic. The arts are an economic driver that benefits everybody—stores, coffeeshops, restaurants. In Lambertville we helped turn the north end of town into an absolute gem. I’m just really grateful that Richard and I have been here for more than 30 years—my children were born here—and we hope that we get to enjoy this area for another 30 years.
Richard: I’ve lived in a lot of places. I love this country setting, where you can’t possibly get up without seeing something beautiful in all four seasons. My wife and I have been here and raised our sweet kids here and nowhere would be more pleasant. Lambertville, Frenchtown and a lot of the towns 30 years ago weren’t cooking, but they are now and I couldn’t be happier.
Michael: Well, we’re delighted that the two of you are here and enriching Lambertville and us with your art and your work—thank you! At the Lambertville Historical Society, we look forward to continuing to collaborate and inspire folks in the years to come.
Mark: Thank you, it is our pleasure!
Richard: To the future!
For upcoming Roxey Ballet performances and more, visit https://www.roxeyballet.org/.