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Music: 22 minutes Elapse

This is the second in series of posts on the process of creating a new work entitled "Elapse"

Some of the most frequently asked questions by audience members in post-show Q&As are about music. How do you choose your music? What comes first, the choreography or the music?

For me, the music usually isn’t the first piece of the puzzle.

I start with an idea or image. In the case of my new piece Elapse for Ballet Memphis, it was the idea of running out of time. Then I choose my dancers. During our first few days we establish a language together for the piece we’ll create together. I teach them some base phrases, then we create new phrases based on a list of words that relate to my idea (metronome, pocketwatch, layers, turbulence...) and finally I ask them to generate new material based on those phrases. And only then does music enter the process.

Watching, Listening.

Photo: Jaqlin Medlock

Once we have some base material for solos or duets I ask dancers to execute it to different musical selections. Some dancers get a little anxious about the vagueness. Others like the opportunity to influence the process. For most dancers it’s a combination of the two.

Sometimes it takes five or six selections before we find a good fit. When it does fit I see the dialogue between dancer and music take on its own momentum. The process becomes one step less dependent on my input, and that’s great. And the music that fits is often not what I would’ve guessed ahead of time.

In the case of Elapse, however, I had a piece of music I’d been considering for months. It was “Yufuin” by Hauschka, the German prepared-piano wizard whose music I’ve used on many occasions.

Hauschka at his "ghost piano"

Photo credit: http://delano.lu

“Yufuin” was a little different for me. It was a 22-minute improvisation on musical themes from his previous album Abandoned City. (Hear the whole track here.) The abandoned city theme fit perfectly with my research, but the duration made me nervous. I was accustomed to creating my own structure based on a series of shorter tracks; “Yufuin” would give me less wiggle room. Also it had more drive than what I’d used in the past. It had faster, more propulsive rhythms and at many points a HUGER sound than I liked. I lined up alternative options.

I didn’t know how to handle that big sound at around 1:50. At that point in the piece I wanted one female dancer, Virginia Pilgrim, alone onstage with three hourglasses, and the sound didn't seem right. Once I’d created some material with Virginia, I turned the music on and told Ballet Master Brian McSween why it wasn’t going to work. It was too cavernous and too big for one dancer. It was going to be terrible! I had Plan B cued up already.

Then Virginia danced, and she looked perfect.

The music got into her brain and her muscles. It drove her forward and gave the movement more urgency than I’d seen before. Suddenly I could see her as a single ant-like human in a huge space like an abandoned hangar, with only those three hourglasses behind her. Thanks to the music the solo had context I hadn’t understood before.

Right then, on the basis of 30 seconds of still-unshaped solo material, I decided to commit to the whole 22 minutes of "Yufuin".

More process stuff to come in future installments. In the meantime, check out my initial playlist in Spotify, or enjoy Hauschka's Wired interview on how to modify a piano.

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