Local choreographers look to new, live music for inspiration

Staff writerMarch 28, 2014 

Usually, when choreographers such as Faith Stevens and Emilie Stevens create a new dance, the process is similar: They find music they like, listen to it a lot, create the steps and perform it with a recording.

Not this weekend. For their two very different shows, the Tacoma choreographers (who are not related) decided to work with live musicians and newly arranged or composed music, creating works that synchronize the art forms into a whole that’s bigger than the parts.

But the music is from radically different ends of the classical spectrum. While Faith Stevens’ MLKBallet company will be dancing to an acoustic and electronic piece by Seattle composer Brad Hawkins, Emilie Stevens’ Metropolitan Ballet dancers will combine ballet and pantomime to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” rescored and performed by musical director Karen Haas.

“It’s definitely fun,” Faith Stevens says of creating dance to new music. “You get to choose what story you’re going to tell with the music. But it’s challenging in that the creative process doesn’t get to be just yours.”

“Normally I’d start with the music and shape the steps to fit that,” Emilie Stevens explains. “Here, we flip-flopped: Karen Haas and I started with establishing the characters and (action), and selected the music to suit what was already happening.”

It’s a process that incorporates music more holistically than just treating it like aural wallpaper. Notes adapt to the visual shapes, which in turn mold the musical phrases.

Hawkins, who will perform on cello for half of MLKBallet’s show “Chamber,” is an established film and video-game composer. He sees similarities in dance and video-game scores.

“You can do a lot of things musically with a visual component – you can stretch out musically,” he says.

During a recent rehearsal, Hawkins laid long, eerie cello notes over minimalist bell-like minor chords in the electronic score. Dancers wove wistful balletic turns with slow, mesmerizing finger tracings. When the music segued into a faster house beat, with electronic musician Joe Garvin laying live scratches and static on top, the dancers followed, wheeling in unison like tense birds.

The musicians incorporate the on-stage movement through improvisation that echoes the dancers’ tempo.

“Chamber” is just one work in the MLKBallet program; there are also five shorter works by Hawkins, plus new choreography (also by Stevens) to classical works by Debussy, Messiaen and John Cage.

The impetus for the collaboration came from pianist Caroline Swinehart, who was friends with an MLKBallet dancer and approached Stevens with the idea.

“Chamber music really relies on visual cues, so it seemed a good fit for dance,” Swinehart says. “We worked to explore the visual aspect.”

But while dancing to new, live music is creative, it’s also a challenge. Stevens choreographed her Debussy piece to a recording — but had to modify many phrases when she realized Swinehart was playing it slower and with various tempo changes. She created “Chamber” to a computer-generated recording of Hawkins’ score, but didn’t know what the real thing would eventually sound like. Hawkins himself changed one of the short works to a cello solo after seeing the choreography at a rehearsal.

“I think it’s worth it,” Stevens says. “It helps my creative process to have various restrictions.”

At Metropolitan Ballet, Haas has been working since summer with Emilie Stevens on a new pantomime ballet to Rossini’s opera “La Gazza Ladra” (“The Thieving Magpie”). Stevens and Haas rewrote the piano score, adding in parts for violin, clarinet and guitar. While the dance draws heavily from pantomime and commedia dell’arte, there are some character dances and ballet as well – plus some sharp-angled, head-cocked gestures and birdlike yoga poses for the Magpie herself.

Primarily, though, Haas and Stevens have fitted musical motifs to characters: the swift upward arpeggio and flutter-down of the overture to the Magpie, the triad theme slowed down for the Grandfather and so on. Even the silver spoon gets a sound effect.

And while Rossini’s music might be nearly 200 years old, it’s still flexible.

“We’ve built in repeats in case the dancers go more slowly,” says Haas of the 20-minute ballet.

“The Magpie” is part of Metropolitan Ballet’s Spring Repertory show, which features ballet, Broadway and jazz numbers by the students and company.

For both choreographers, though, having live musicians has transformed the dance experience.

“I knew I had to have live music,” says Emilie Stevens. “I wanted the unity of dancers, actors and musicians all working together.”

Says Faith Stevens, “There’s no substitute for watching someone perform live – that’s true for music and dance. There aren’t many things that can compare to that. That makes it worth all the effort.” ‘Chamber’

Who: MLKBallet, with musicians Brad Hawkins, Joe Garvin, Caroline Swinehart and Janet Utterback-Peck

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Urban Grace, 902 Market St., Tacoma

Tickets: $8

Information: mlkballet.blog.com, brownpapertickets.com/event/590586

Spring Repertory including ‘The Magpie’ premiere

Who: Metropolitan Ballet of Tacoma, with music directed by Karen Haas

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Mount Tahoma High School theater, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma

Tickets: $12 adults; $10 seniors, children

Information: 253-472-5359, metropolitan balletoftacoma.com

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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