Gianna Reisen Is Drawn to Neoclassical Music for Her Choreography

Rising Waters, by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Josh Rose, courtesy of L.A. Dance Project

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)

Andrew Bird - Echolocations: River (10/6/17)

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

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)

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"

Artist: Moondog

Album: Moondog

"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

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."

Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

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