Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What's In A Name?

Fourth in a series on my collaboration with the Atlanta Ballet

So far in this series of blogs about my commission for the Atlanta Ballet and my collaborative work with choreographer  and dancer Tara Lee, I have focused broadly on how the project was started and how it has changed over the course of our working together. Yet, these are not usually the first things people ask about when they find out I am working with the Ballet. The most common questions I receive are, “What is the ballet about?” and “What is the name of the piece?”

Like everything else about the project, the name and concept have undergone several changes since Tara and I initially met months ago. Tara’s earliest idea was that of a continuum. We were not sure where this continuum began nor where it led. It was the barest of ideas. Through multiple conversations, the idea of continuum began to evolve. What if we were not talking about a linear continuum but rather a cyclic continuum? The idea of cycles began to take root. We even came up with a working title for the piece: revolve. It was still a nascent thought, however, until Tara presented a more concrete programmatic element.

The finished score!
One afternoon, while meeting at the ballet studios, Tara shared an article with me that had been posted on Facebook entitled, The Peacock Pose: Dance with Divinity by Catherine Ghosh. This article helped Tara form a more definite idea about the dramatic narrative of the work. The imagery of the peacock seemed to unify our amorphous concepts by incorporating three ideas from the mayurasana, or the so-called peacock pose in Yoga to our pre-existing notion of cycles. Tara was also inspired at this point by hearing samples of the music I had composed for certain sections of the piece. After hearing my sketches, thinking about cycles and reading Catherine Ghosh’s article, she proposed that we change the name of the piece from revolve to Pavo - the Latin word for peacock.

To quote Ms. Ghosh, from her article: “Overflowing with rich symbolism, the image of a peacock displaying its fan of feathers has been as cherished as a rising sun, a picture of the heavenly constellations in the sky, a hundred eyes and the wheel of immortality.” Throughout history, the image of the peacock has captivated many diverse cultures and religious traditions. Within my own faith tradition, I was well aware of the peacock’s depiction in Byzantine art as the soul and its beautiful, incorruptible status as well as the Orthodox Christian view of the peacock as an ancient symbol of the Resurrection: as he sheds his feathers, the peacock grows more brilliant ones than those he lost. I was thrilled with Tara’s concept and finally felt some solid ground beneath my compositional feet. It wasn’t long after Tara presented this idea to me that I completed the entire score.
Pavo is cast into five movements played without interruption. This seamless series of events is the remnant of our earliest concept of a continuum. First, the piece begins with a relatively slow and atmospheric introduction. This introduction leads directly into the second movement and the first aspect of the peacock pose we wish to highlight. The movement is entitled the poisons. The music and dance concern themselves with the peacock’s uncanny ability to digest snakes, poison and all. From this, we move directly to the third movement, the gathering storm. This movement plays with the imagery of the wonderful, restless dancing a peacock performs just prior to rainstorms. Having reached a very energetic and rhythmic high point, the music and dance abruptly shift gears and move directly into the climatic section of the piece: the fourth movement entitled transfigurations. Peacocks choose mates for life and as such have become a symbol of fidelity. In this movement, there are two ideas at play. First there is the aspect of faithfulness and strength. Secondly, there is the subtext of cycles remaining from our very earliest ideas about the piece. Now, however, we focus on the individual and the breaking out of personal cycles. These cycles can represent negative aspects of our lives (addictions, poor choices, bad habits, etc.) or the entire cycle of our lives. In either context, the individual has the ability to break negative cycles as well as transcend the earthly life cycle. Tara has conceived of an abstract narrative where one dancer represents the peacock and another an individual caught within a cycle. The peacock dances and absorbs the poison of negative cycles and in a lyric duet, helps to show a transfiguring pathway to the individual. Thus, this movement provides a context wherein the dancers are transfigured beyond the circle they began within. After this climatic dance, the music ends quietly with an atmospheric fifth movement: an epilogue. This music is a sort of retrograde of the ideas found in the introduction. Ultimately, we leave the listener with a question: will I choose to transcend my own cycle or remain within?
At long last, all the elements are set. We have a narrative, the score is complete, there is choreography, dancers have already started rehearsing with computer renditions of the piece and the musicians have their respective parts. Now we enter the eye of the hurricane and await the rehearsals with musicians and dancers, adding in set design and lighting along the way. I can hardly wait!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Coming Together

This month’s blog post is the third in a series of thoughts on my collaborative work with the Atlanta Ballet.

It has been three months and one very interesting ride since choreographer Tara Lee and I began work on a newly commissioned piece for the Atlanta Ballet. While a lot of music written in March is still being used in the piece, much has changed since our initial conversations back in February (see the first installment of this series). The overall concept of the piece has undergone a fairly significant transformation and with that change, the music and overall structure of the score has needed to adapt. Whole sections of music have found their way to the cutting room floor. Although sometimes a bit painful, I more or less expected this type of fluidity in the creative process. It’s different than the collaboration I had in composing the film score. That project presented a completed work that needed music added. Visuals, movements, dramatic narrative and the music for this ballet project, in contrast, are all being created simultaneously. Working with dancers and entering into their world has been a wonderful growing experience for me personally as a composer.

In past blog entries, I’ve commented on the importance of a good relationship between composer and choreographer. My initial thoughts on this have only been strengthened during this creative period. What I have found truly fascinating and quite wonderful to observe, however, is the collaborative nature between the choreographer and the dancers themselves. I’ve had the great fortune of attending a couple of rehearsals with Tara and her company and witnessed this working relationship first-hand.

I’ll admit that at first, I wasn’t paying much attention to the interaction between choreographer and dancers. Initially, I was simply overwhelmed by the movements set to my music. Somehow this was a completely different experience than hearing musicians bring a piece to life for the first time. Watching so much care and artistry applied to music I had created was truly humbling.

Once I got past this rush of excitement at seeing the ballet begin to take shape, I slowly became aware of how the dancers were working together and, in particular, how Tara was guiding the process. She had clearly arrived with definite ideas about choreography but did not rigidly impose these ideas upon the dancers. Instead, the rehearsals were full of give and take. In one beautiful sequence, two dancers featured in the slow, lyrical duet, came up with a set of movements almost by accident. These movements were an outgrowth of Tara’s overall form but perfectly fit a certain section of the music. Tara was quick to embrace the dancers’ contribution. What was truly amazing to me was watching the other dancers pick up on the movements with only one look. An entire sequence was magically created before my very eyes! Watching this creative process was an even more exhilarating experience for me than watching the first choreographed movements to my music when I first arrived.

As a result of the work done in these rehearsals, additional edits and changes to the score had to be made but, as of this writing, I believe the music for the piece is fairly set now. Tara will have another few days of rehearsals with her company to fine tune our adjustments and then it will be time begin putting all of this together. With a more or less final version of the score, my task at the moment is to properly engrave the music send parts off to the performers. Musical rehearsals are set to be begin in a few weeks!

We are still some distance from the destination, but the journey is quickening its pace. I’m sure I speak for all of my co-creators when I say that we are all growing more excited about our arrival!