Music for Class: Breaking Ballet Boundaries

Photo by Jae Man Joo, courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

From the moment Dwight Rhoden walks into the studio in sneakers and skinny jeans, students know this is no average ballet class. It may start at the barre like any other, but going off-center is encouraged, a plié combination full of deep contractions leaves dancers sweating and the adagio could be set to fast-paced trance music. This intense contemporary ballet class prepares students for Rhoden's singular choreographic approach.

“Most professional dancers will take a ballet class and then do contemporary choreography," he says, “but they don't use their body in this different way in a classroom structure. So Desmond Richardson and I developed our own style."

Rhoden and Richardson co-founded Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which has wowed audiences with this blend of contemporary dance and classical ballet for 15 years. Rhoden has choreographed for the company, as well as added to the repertory of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Joffrey Ballet and New York City Ballet/Diamond Project, among others. In addition to teaching Complexions company class, he's brought his contemporary dance class to companies, studios and universities around the country.

Rhoden's unique movements are paired with music that adds to the individuality of his class. Whenever possible, he employs the skills of accompanist Matthew Ferry, who either plays percussion or every part of the piano he can, inside and out. Sometimes Rhoden combines Ferry's work with other music, and when his favorite accompanist isn't around, Rhoden relies on playlists that vary from classical to electronica.

“Music choices for me are more about the mix and the differences between them than the music itself," he says. “It's very valuable in class to switch music up so dancers are able to interpret and make artistic choices even in a classroom setting."

Artist: Johann Sebastian Bach

Song: “Sonata for Violin Solo #1"

“I like using Bach's single instrument pieces like this because there's space between the notes. It's interesting to see how dancers fill that space and the choices they make when showing the movement."

Artist: Autechr

Album: Quaristice

“Autechre is an English electronica group that uses a lot of rhythm on some tracks and others sound more like soundscapes—long texture with no tempo at all. When the music has no definition, I don't generally count. I push the dancers to discover the innate rhythm that's present in movement."

Artist: Robert Lidstroem

Album: Recitation

“Lidstroem is a Swedish trance producer. Trance music is defined as being between 130 and 155 beats per minute. It's kind of brisk, and I like to use it for allegro. This creates an interesting juxtaposition of music and movement."

Artist: Frédéric Chopin

Song: “Preludes"

“Chopin is very mathematical, so I use his music for quick movement and really intricate work. His right hand will be moving quickly on the piano and is more percussive, while his left hand is sustained. Dancers can hear multiple things in one piece of music and bring it to life in the movement."

Artist: George Frideric Handel

Songs: “Harpsichord Suites Nos. 4 and 5"

“I use harpsichord music once dancers are really warmed up and doing a movement phrase. For example, after the barre they may do tendus with a pirouette and also be using their upper body, carving through the space. I use this music for movement like that."

Artist: Daft Punk

Song: “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger"

“Daft Punk is house music but also considered more electronic. I like this because it's just different. For me, the music I use depends on the day. One day I could be using Bach for a new phrase and the next day it could be house music."


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