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."


Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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