Trending

3 Choreographers Share How to Choose Music That Enhances the Work

"Music chooses me," says Jennifer Weber, founder of the all-female hip-hop group Decadancetheatre. Photo courtesy of Decadancetheatre

Music turns choreographers on. They listen all the time, looking for inspiration. From Bach to rap, there are more than enough choices to satisfy even the most particular. But it's not simply a matter of choosing what they like. When selecting music for movement they have to find something that complements and enhances the work. Music and dance should correspond perfectly. As Balanchine most famously said, “Dance is music made visible." And, “See the music, hear the dance."

Choreographers meet this challenge in a variety of ways. DT spoke with three popular concert dancemakers who've coincidentally tended toward music from the past rather than the current Top 40. Learning how—and why—they choose music makes it easier to understand how they develop their work.


Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes loves old music, favoring tunes from before the '90s for her troupe Monica Bill Barnes & Company. “I like the sense of nostalgia that it evokes," she says. She grew up with her grandparents' record collection and lived with that older music for a long time, developing a close relationship with it. She sees her job as transforming it into something new. To accomplish this, she tries out a selection of music in the studio, seeing what works with the dancers. “There's a lot of trial and error," she says. “The choreography can't reiterate the sound; there has to be a reason to put them together. The dance should help get out the rhythmic patterns. Sometimes I don't decide on the music until a week before a performance. It has to fit as well as the costuming."

She uses live recordings so that her audiences can hear the reactions of another audience to the music. “They act on one another," she says, “and the work becomes a sum of many parts, the music's history embedded in the dance." She recently reworked Suddenly Summer Somewhere for summer festivals in Tarrytown and Chatham, New York. As music, she used recordings of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1963. “They were so funny, so cool, with perfect timing. I study their performances endlessly," she says. She's currently experimenting with Janis Joplin and Puccini operas.

Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Monica Bill Barnes

David Parker, founder of The Bang Group, is a huge fan of vaudeville, musical theater and Hollywood musicals. Trained as a tap dancer, he brings joie de vivre and humor to his pieces. “I think I have a natural sense of rhythm," he says. “It's part of my nervous system. I can naturally organize around time and rhythm." He sometimes looks to '70s and '80s popular music for inspiration, tunes he recalls from his teen years. He chooses dancers who can assimilate the music, taking it into their bodies. Having worked with Amber Sloan, Nic Petry, and his co-director, Jeffrey Kazin, now for many years, he hardly needs to explain what he wants.

Though his pieces are humorous, they aren't easy, being based on cerebral musical structures with latent associations. They function on three levels at once. The rhythmic level must be fulfilled first, but the movements used to create the rhythms are often loaded with meaning. They may include kissing and slapping sounds, percussive embraces and rebuffs that are also affecting on a psychological or emotional level. Thirdly, they involve large body movements, which are atypical of percussive dance forms, making the physical level very demanding as well.

David Parker (far right) and The Bang Group courtesy of The Bang Group

Parker chooses music only after he has developed a substantial amount of movement material. This gives him time to find the work's intrinsic musicality. “I want the dance and music to bounce off each other like Tracy and Hepburn," he says, “sparring partners and lovers both, to strike sparks as well as jibe." Occasionally the choice of music isn't up to him. In 2008, Robin Staff, director of DanceNOW NYC, asked him to create an all-dance version of the old Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun for her Modern [Dance] Musicals series at Joe's Pub in New York. He called it ShowDown. He listened to a lot of recordings, eventually finding that the score recorded by Judy Garland and Howard Keel for the MGM movie version was the most congenial to dancing. “It's a good challenge when I'm given the music," he says. “I learned a lot from choreographing to this piece."

“Music chooses me," says Jennifer Weber, founder of the all-female hip-hop group Decadancetheatre. “I might hear it on a podcast, at a club, a show or at a friend's house, and I immediately have a vision. It has to tell a story." Ultimately, the music must fulfill a lot of requirements. It must be emotional, full of variety and cinematic. She often works with DJs and she likes improvisation. “A dialogue has to develop between the dancers and the music," she says. “It creates a kind of tension that's very exciting."

Although hip-hop music makes up most of her repertory, Weber also uses classical pieces to see what happens when she breaks tradition. One element that defines hip-hop dance is how strongly the movement matches the specific beat of the song. And in hip-hop music, the beat is often very predictable—accenting on the downbeat—and therefore the audience can anticipate where dancers are going to hit an accent even before they move. Although she likes connecting the performers and the audience in this way, she wanted to see what happened when she used a different kind of music. She choreographed to Stravinsky's Firebird in 2004 and to the “Summer" concerto from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons in 2012.

“Since there are no lyrics in the Vivaldi, words weren't there to impose meaning," she says. “I don't like the movement and lyrics to say the same thing anyway. It's redundant. I'll often choreograph a fight to a love song. The juxtaposition makes you see things differently. I don't want to tell audiences what a piece is about; I want them to read their own feelings into them."

She chose The Four Seasons because the music gave her a lot of visual ideas to play with. “We started with the 'Summer' concerto," she says, “and talked a lot about how summer feels, where the sun was onstage and the energy of that last party of the summer when you let everything go before the weather gets cold again." As they started putting hip-hop moves to the classical score, they began noticing a strong connection. The way that they danced allowed them to amplify certain sounds and hidden rhythms that the audience might not have noticed right away.

“We tried to stay true to the sounds we heard," she says, “and use our bodies as translators of the music, interpreting the almost 300-year-old score into the language of today. The dancers loved the challenge. We found the music inspiring, because we were never able to say the usual counts 5, 6, 7, 8. Instead, we had to really listen in a new way and develop our own vocabulary for each section."

“The music drives the work," Weber says. “It keeps us fresh. The more we listen, the more we find in it and the better we dance. It's the heartbeat of what we do."

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.