For Gianna Reisen, a classically trained ballet dancer who now performs with L.A. Dance Project, the process of finding music for her choreography is everything. "If I'm not 100 percent inspired by the music, the movement just doesn't come out," she says. Following this natural creative spirit, though, wasn't always the driving force behind her artistry.
While in her graduating year at the School of American Ballet in 2016, the ultimate goal for Reisen, like most of her peers, was to join the New York City Ballet as a dancer—not to be a choreographer. But when Peter Martins, the company's director at the time, noticed her work at a student workshop, he was so impressed that he commissioned her to set a piece for that year's fall gala, making the then 18-year-old the company's youngest choreographer to date.
Now, in her second season as a company member with LADP, led by Benjamin Millepied, Reisen is continuing her dual path as dancer and choreographer. Her work Rising Waters, with music by Andrew Bird, premiered last September.
As a choreographer, Reisen is drawn toward neoclassical composers. "They have a natural human quality to their work that makes me feel emotional and curious," she explains. "My music has to be dynamic in some kind of way—a fast section and a slow section—otherwise it feels monotone or repetitive," she says.
She typically sorts through piles of music files and saves those that spark an emotional response. Once the music's selected, she'll study the dynamics of the composition and the patterns until she can sing every note. "When I hear a piece I like," says Reisen, "I tend to see or feel the choreography."
Playing with movement alone in a studio with music she loves has been a valuable tool that's enriched her musicality. She encourages all ballet dancers and teachers to explore this as an exercise. "It allows dancers to feel freer in their dancing," she says, "and ultimately be more unique."
Andrew Bird - Echolocations: River (10/6/17) www.youtube.com
Artist: Andrew Bird
Album: Echolocations: River
"The way he composes cuts through deeper than hearing it with just your ears, his music hits a nerve, and I can't help but see dances when listening to his instrumental pieces."
Adams: Judah to Ocean www.youtube.com
Artist: John Adams
Song: "Judah to Ocean"
Album: John's Book of Alleged Dances
"I used this for the second piece I choreographed for New York City Ballet, Judah. Adams uses a unique structure and unconventional sounds to create beautiful end results."
Lukas Foss: Three American Pieces (1944) www.youtube.com
Artist: Lukas Foss
Song: "Three American Pieces: Composer's Holiday"
Album: Foss Plays Foss
"Foss is a dynamic American composer, originally from Germany. He uses modern phrases in classical sounding music."
Moondog ― Lament I, "Bird's lament" www.youtube.com
"In addition to being a composer, Louis Thomas Hardin (aka Moondog) was a poet and an inventor, which is clearly heard in his music, like poetry for the ears."
Sky Quartet: I. Sky Rising www.youtube.com
Artist: Jennifer Higdon
Album: Sky Quartet
"I love Higdon's classicism, but she puts a twist on a lot of her music, which intrigues me. I love this album in particular."