Beginning in 2003, the New York Choreographic Institute’s Spring Session has celebrated the Company’s longstanding commitment to the new—not just in choreography, costumes, and design for the stage, but in music as well. Each of the commissioned choreographers is paired with a composer drawn from The Juilliard School’s ranks to collaborate on a new piece, performed in part by students of both Juilliard and the School of American Ballet, embracing the energy and excitement of artists in the formative stages of their careers. "So much of the identity of City Ballet stems from the centrality of these kinds of conversations," says Artistic Director Adrian Danchig-Waring. "What I'm most excited about is the excitement that bubbled up between the choreographers and composers to continue those conversations."
The centrality of recently-composed and unique music to Founding Choreographer George Balanchine’s practice requires little introduction with these artists—his interest in composers whose writing challenges listeners, dancemakers, and musicians alike to open their minds to the unfamiliar imbues the dances created earlier this year. Choreographer Claire Kretzschmar worked with composer and violinist Lauren Vandervelden on Rhapsodie, a piece that conveys the miraculous in classical style; Saudade, the collaboration between choreographer Julia Feldman and composer/producer Katie Jenkins, draws inspiration from a Portuguese word and features a chorus of Jenkins’ voice, multiplied; and choreographer Miro Magloire, with composer and conductor Christian-Frédéric Bloquert, created Memory, Forgot, an unbounded reimagining of a beloved repertory ballet.
"The strength of the Choreographic Institute is that we're so adaptable—every session evolves from the last in ways that are directly responsive to the participating artists," says Danchig-Waring. "What's most important to us is that we're constantly listening to the artists, and changing our practices to better support them." We spoke with the collaborating choreographers and composers about these exciting new works, and the Juilliard professor, Daniel Ott, who helped play matchmaker.
Composer Daniel P. Ott has a longstanding connection to the Spring Sessions at the Choreographic Institute, having composed a piece during the season it was initiated. “In 2003, I was finishing my doctoral degree and simultaneously serving as an assistant faculty member at Juilliard to Pia Gilbert, one of my very close mentors over the years,” he recalls. “Pia had started a program at Juilliard called ‘Composers and Choreographers,’ which I had been a part of as a student. When NYCI reached out to her to ask whether she’d like to be involved by inviting some recent Juilliard composition graduates, she turned to me—and I jumped at the chance to participate. I was paired with Benjamin Millepied, who was just beginning his choreographic career, and he took a liking to my music. In fact, before we even got started on our NYCI piece, he used some of my other music for various projects, so I got to really get immersed in seeing my music set to movement.
“I think that, for me, the most amazing aspect was the openness with which the dance audience accepted ‘new music,’” he continues. “The tradition at New York City Ballet, of course, has always been to foster new work. Seeing new choreography is simply a given for their audience. But that also goes hand-in-hand with newly commissioned scores. As an example, I always think of Agon. Here is a piece by Stravinsky from rather late in his career—and a somewhat thorny, ‘difficult’ piece—that was an immediate hit at the Ballet. That work is rarely performed on the concert stage to this day. And I think it’s that attitude that I found so refreshing about working in dance.” The feeling lasted: Since that first involvement with the Institute, Ott has also held the position of resident composer, and for several years now has served as the organization’s music consultant.
This sustained connection to the Institute is evidence of Ott’s ongoing interest in composition for dance as a creative endeavor. “I think that working with dance means being open-minded,” he says. “Things change in the course of going from the studio to the stage, and that means a certain degree of flexibility is called for. Choreography is made so very differently from music—much of it happens in real time with the dancers in the space, whereas music is usually made totally apart from the rehearsal process, ahead of time. By the time the music makes it into the hands of the performers, things are pretty set in stone. But if a choreographer senses a change is needed, sometimes you have to bend. And that’s okay! It’s a collaboration!
“What I love most about my role at NYCI now is seeing this same sense of discovery and enjoyment in working with dance happen for the younger generation of composers,” he adds. “It’s the same thing I felt when watching those wonderful young SAB dancers (some of whom are major stars now!) move to my music years ago. And I also love that the choreographers are often working with composers for the first time in their careers. They are many times creating work in ways they hadn’t imagined for themselves prior to coming to the Institute. And that’s just really special to me. Seeing some of the pairs that work together for the first time at the Institute go on to make work elsewhere is incredibly gratifying. It makes me feel as if NYCI is doing its part to further the art form, and it doesn’t get any better than that.”
“As an artist, I have always been inspired by dance,” says composer and violinist Lauren Vandervelden. “When I was very young, I participated in several ballet classes and was captivated by the combination of movement and music. The two are both capable of telling a narrative. Even when writing concert music, the expressivity of movement serves as inspiration for my compositions. This might be drawn in part from my synesthesia, or the association of senses with one another; when listening to music, I perceive colors and shapes. Likewise, I am greatly attracted to writing for dance, as the eloquence of movement and shape directly inspires my concept of music.” Her collaboration with choreographer and current NYCB Soloist Claire Kretzschmar was just the latest among many instances in her career of working with dancers, though she does describe it as uniquely freeing. The two connected regularly over the two months spent creating the work, but were otherwise working independently.
“I really tried to give her the creative space to just do what she wanted to do,” says Kretzschmar. Though this was her second time working with the Institute, it was her first opportunity to have a composer write a new score specifically for a work she was choreographing. “[Vandervelden] delivered something absolutely stunning,” she says. “The whole thing was quite seamless. And we just worked as diligently as we could to be in dialogue with each other and go forward every day.”
The resulting piece, Rhapsodie, draws much of its structure, mood, and intent from a story begun over 150 years ago. “The inspiration for the ballet is a series of events that took place in 1858, when the Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl named Bernadette in Lourdes, France,” shares Kretzschmar. “She appeared at a grotto, multiple times, over a few months, and asked a few things of Bernadette. One of the more notable requests was to dig in the ground for water, and the spot where Bernadette was supposed to dig was extremely muddy. So the fact that eventually, after digging, the water became clear, was miraculous.
“One of the other things that Mary asked of Bernadette was that a church be built on this grotto, the site of her apparitions,” Kretzschmar continues. “Today, because of the miraculous incidence of the water turning clear, and the church growing, people flock to Lourdes seeking healing from the water. It's actually a place that I've been to, in the summer of 2019, and I witnessed all of these people coming from various walks of life and backgrounds. Some people were on stretchers and in wheelchairs. All of this came from this story of Mary appearing to Bernadette, and now it's grown into something much bigger than the young girl could have imagined.
“Lauren really pulled from the scenes of Lourdes,” she adds. “It has this river running through it, and there's a grand church that has a beautiful gray sculpture that comes out of the grotto, and beautiful trees and mountains. I suppose some of the major themes and motifs would be the idea of healing and beauty, and how we can be touched by beauty. And there's the theme of motherhood that comes through—in the piece, Mary comes onstage and interacts with Bernadette, and throughout the piece they have a conversation. I hope that this sense of a mother's touch comes out in the ballet.”
Beyond the score and the choreography, the story of Mary and Bernadette inspired the costumes as well. “The ladies wear these asymmetrical skirts,” says Kretzschmar. “A woman I know named Nicole Roque made the skirts, and she did an absolutely fabulous job. In the story, Mary had some yellow roses appear on her feet at one point. So Nicole thought of having a little gold rose pin on the corner of the ladies’ leotards. That's our nod to Karinska. People in the audience couldn't really see the gold rose, but the dancers knew it was there, and it was special.”
“The Choreographic Institute is an exceptional opportunity for aspiring artists,” says Vandervelden. “Having the chance to collaborate with a dancer provides extraordinary inspiration and challenges how one approaches creativity. Being able to work with someone from a different artistic field opened my eyes to new ways of conceiving of and discussing art. This process required me to leave my comfort zone to explore the world of dance through music.” Her reflections neatly encapsulate the mission of the Spring Session of the Institute.
“It was a dream to receive and accept this commission,” says choreographer, Company Artist with the Sacramento Ballet, and co-founder of Capital Dance Project Julia Feldman. “Simply getting to work in a space that holds so much creative and iconic history provided inspiration in itself. On top of that, getting to work alongside such giving and talented collaborators—including composer Katie Jenkins, filmmaker Quinn Wharton, and dramaturg Antonia Grilikhes-Lasky—resulted in such a creatively rich process from start to finish.
“I absolutely loved working with Katie,” Feldman continues. “She is an incredibly talented composer, and her thoughtfulness, storytelling ability, and attention to detail were all so impressive and inspiring. Getting to work directly with the composer of the music you’re choreographing to is special and rare. We're not always lucky enough to hear firsthand what the composer had in mind when creating their work. It was important to me to focus on and have a clear understanding of what her inspiration for the piece was, and stay true to the underlying themes and meanings that she had in mind when composing it.”
Understanding Welsh composer Katie Jenkins’ vision was particularly important in this instance, because the score was written prior to the development of the choreography—somewhat unusual in Jenkins’ experience, as she shares. “In some ways, it's kind of like a composer's dream, because I could basically write whatever I wanted to. We had a brief conversation beforehand, but it was quite freeing to be able to just write to my own vision, my own story.”
That story is a timely one, as Jenkins explained. “The title of the piece is the Portuguese word Saudade,” she says. “It means something like the sense of longing when you know that something was so great, but you know that it won't happen again. I thought it was a really relevant concept to COVID and everything that we've been through. The piece goes through my emotional journey—things that happened throughout the couple of years we've been through, good and bad, and reaches a resolution with the final vocals. That was me becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, and the self-growth and development that I went through. It was also inspired by my writing it in Wales and feeling isolated and uncomfortable and longing to get back to ‘reality.’
“The original draft of this piece was very non-rhythmic,” she says of the creative process itself. “I really enjoy writing electronic music and more ambient textures. For some dances, that works really, really well, especially when it's a smaller group of dancers, who really get to know the sounds on a more intimate level. Julia pointed this out in the early drafts of my piece—where there needed to be more rhythmic parts, more clear melodies, things for the dancers to grasp, to be able to know where they are in the piece.
“The real composing came when I was mixing it and producing the music and adding the sound effects and sculpting the different sounds together, rather than writing out the composition on paper,” she continues. “There actually is no score. I've never really worked like that before, but it was really fun and lent itself quite well to dance, because there were always hooks and things to listen to, despite the music being very ambient. I found that when I listened to my piece, and then I listened to the piece with the dance, I listened to it differently. Julia really brought out elements in the music that I didn't even realize were important moments.” Signs of a particularly effective collaboration, evident as well in the final work.
“When I began my choreographic career two decades ago, Balanchine's oeuvre and his model of ballet-as-a-way-of-life were among my most important influences,” says Miro Magloire, Founder and Artistic Director of NYC’s New Chamber Ballet. “Since then, many things have changed: with my own company I pursue an in-the-round, up-close and intimate chamber style that feeds as much from contemporary dance as from ballet, and we create new work slowly through months of exploration. For the typically fast-paced NYCI session, I decided to meet the dancers—a group of enthusiastic advanced students from SAB—halfway: by choreographing a response to Balanchine’s Serenade.”
“Miro wanted to take Serenade apart and put it back together in some way,” explains French composer and conductor Christian-Frédéric Bloquert. “So, I did the same with the music. I asked, ‘Do you want it slow, do you want it fast?’ And he said, ‘Do whatever your heart desires.’ So I did. I took the three big themes from the piece and put them together, then took them apart; it's never outrightly stated in the piece until the very end, and even then it's not meant to be obvious and it's distorted a bit. What was slightly different from my other compositional processes is that in this piece, I wanted there to be a strong element of rhythm. Even if the rhythms in the piece are quite complicated from the musicians’ perspectives, the way the music is felt is that there's a constant pulse throughout. That is what I wanted to give, because I didn't want to sacrifice too much musically for the sake of keeping the pulse. I think I found this balance of having the music be kind of complicated and fun for the musicians, but intuitive enough for the dancers to be able to latch on to certain aspects of it.
“[The SAB students are] such great dancers, and the whole process was really fun,” Bloquert adds. “Every time I’ve worked with dancers, I’ve always thought back and told myself that I wanted to do something different the next time, either in the way I collaborated, or in the types of music that I wrote. So every time it happens, I have more fun with it, and working with the Institute and a much bigger cast was so fun. And working with such great dancers was a wonderful experience. It's made me want to keep writing for dancers, and find new ways of writing music for dance, because even with this experience, I thought of things I would do slightly differently, perhaps next time, whenever that might be.”
“When music and dance come together, music tends to take the lead by spelling out how the work will develop through time,” says Magloire. “Christian’s score is so evocative, with such a strong climax, that I immediately thought of another iconic ballet, one that premiered only a few years before Serenade, created by another Russian choreographer in exile: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Both of these works are burned into my memory by their unforgettable group dances; I hope that Memory, Forgot captures the indomitable group spirit of its passionate, fearless, and simply stunning dancers.”
All three works created during the NYCI's Spring Session 2022 are available to stream now.