This December, one of the most highly anticipated and unpredictable creative events at Juilliard returns to the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The Composers-Choreographers Project, a semester-long interdisciplinary collaboration, offers students in the Music and Dance Divisions a chance to see their craft through fresh eyes, and the performances which result offer an imaginative glimpse into an unconventional creative process.
Last spring, after competitive auditions, six (current) third-year dance students and six returning composition students were selected to participate in the project, known familiarly as ChoreoComp. The goal of the course, co-taught by composers Dan Ott and Jerome Begin and choreographer Janice Brenner, is to pair the participants into teams and to guide the creation and production of six short, new, original theatrical works. These pieces, fully produced with costumes, lighting, and live music, will be premiered in December (the second half of the program features performances by guests from the Paris Conservatory).
Even at Juilliard, where artists of many disciplines rub elbows daily, such an opportunity for interdisciplinary work is special, and the project is of particular importance to Larry Rhodes, artistic director of the Dance Division. “I think it’s natural that music and dance go together,” he said. “Lots of schools have access to create this kind of course and they don’t take advantage of that in this way. I think it’s a particular time in our lives, too, where people can hardly afford live music for dance much less commission scores, and to have this kind of collaborative experience is really fantastic for the dancers, and really unusual.”
For Ott, some of the excitement of the project lies in its uncertainties. “Choreographers don’t often feel secure in the risk involved in setting something new,” he noted. “When you have something that is familiar and that you’re attracted to from the beginning—something that’s recorded and you can listen to over and over again and rehearse to over and over again—obviously there’s a certain safety there. From the composition point of view, it’s a chance for us to break out of our little world that we build around ourselves.”
One thing that is certain about the project is the frequent need for its participants to take a leap of faith. After discovering that their auditions were successful this spring, the choreographers and composers met, some for the first time, and set about trying to determine how to pair up. This process involved a number of mini-collaborations in which the artists got to know one another through discussion and improvisation. The conversations were not always easy, as participants struggled to discover a lingua franca. Some composers had never experienced a serious collaboration with a dancer, just as some of the choreographers were feeling the gravity of creating their first major original works.
Several of these challenges were described by one of the creative teams, choreographer William Barry and composer Michael Gilbertson. “The creative process for ChoreoComp is certainly different than it has been for my other work,” Barry said. “The biggest difference [was] going into the studio to start choreographing and not having a clue what the music is going to sound like.”
Gilbertson noted that though the specifics were hazy at first, he is confident that the product will be the cohesive result of a well-matched team. “Billy actually picked me after hearing some of my music,” he said. “He told me his favorite piece was Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which made clear to me we would be a great match. I knew his choreography was lyrical, expressive, and had a sense of motion to it that would be conducive to my compositional voice.”
“Billy and I have had a wonderful sense of mutuality and consensus throughout the process in shaping the character of our work,” he continued. “Both of us wanted a piece that would be abstract, so we could focus on creating a unique and aesthetically integrated world between the music and choreography.”
Several months into the process, polished music began to emerge, to the relief of both collaborators. “When [Michael] brought me the music and I played it in rehearsal and tried some of the choreography to it, it fit perfectly,” Barry said. “Everything just connected really naturally, so as more and more music comes, I think the piece will just fall into place seamlessly.”
An eloquent description of the program from veteran teacher Jerome Begin speaks to ChoreoComp’s long-range potential to shape the creative identities of these 12 young artists. “The most valuable benefit of collaborating with artists in other disciplines is the vast window that the experience can open up into one’s own work,” he said. “The parallels and diversions, commonalities and differences between the forms, media, and processes of different art forms enable an artist to view their work and their discipline in a new light, to come at the concepts they routinely deal with from a different angle. One particularly valuable challenge inherent in collaboration is the need to present and justify one’s artistic opinion to a collaborator. There is another creative voice in the mix.”
“Musicians and dancers can learn so much from each other,” he continued. “Both composers and choreographers are dealing with performance—with art that progresses through time. The time scales can be very different. The delivery media involved are vastly different—visual versus aural. What creates artistic meaning in music, in dance? Why do choreographers so often incorporate sound in their work? Why do we dance to music, even in a club or at a party? There is such a powerful, mysterious relationship between music and movement. What is it about these abstract forms of concert music and concert dance that emotionally moves human beings?”
He added, “To me, art is largely about questions: if this, then what?”
For some answers to these questions, and undoubtedly some new questions, we must await the first performances of these new works.