A Feat Beyond Certainty: American Composer-Choreographer Relationships

A Feat Beyond Certainty: American Composer-Choreographer Relationships

The Feet of Jennifer Dunning
Photo by Melissa Richard

The relationship of composer to choreographer had its certainties late in the 19th century. Ballet told stories. Both composer and choreographer had only to tell those stories of enchanted maidens, death-dealing vampires, and hapless princes with dependable dance rhythms and sufficient atmosphere. There were the Salieris, among them Adolphe Adam, the established ballet composer who created the score for the ballet classic Giselle whose music today lives primarily to serve the dance. Then there was Tchaikovsky, whose music for ballets like Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker stands on its own as musical storytelling colored by symphonic grandeur and depth of emotion. It didn’t hurt that those scores were by a composer whose major work was intended to be interpreted by a more traditional kind of musical instrument than the human body.

Music for dance began to shed its inferiority complex as dance began to turn away, early in the 20th century, from storytelling and toward pure movement or dance for its own sake. The shift began formally with the groundbreaking experiments of the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, his earliest resident choreographer, Michel Fokine, and, most of all, George Balanchine. Performances by Isadora Duncan in Russia in 1909 had opened the eyes of Diaghilev and Fokine to the possibilities of natural rather than artificial movement. The point of almost no return came when Diaghilev commissioned The Rite of Spring in 1913 from a young Russian composer named Igor Stravinsky. Fifteen years later, Stravinsky and a young Russian choreographer named Balanchine established one of the great artistic partnerships of the 20th century, expanding the notion of dance and dance music in the process.

A few dance scores by Aaron Copland, commissioned by Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, and others, helped to shape a short-lived genre of dance that focused on a mostly sunny view of frontier, bedrock America. But collaborations were beyond the economic reach of most choreographers and dance institutions, hauled out on occasion as a usually suspect marketing device as the century spooled on. And as Balanchine’s exploration of the nature of ballet became more influential in the development of American and European dance, the move away from artifice grew stronger. Dance began to be seen as an art sufficient unto itself.

Sit in front of a monitor at the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and scan the screens to the left and right, earphones firmly in place, and you will make an eerie and astonishing discovery: hiphop struts sync to Brahms, rhythmic beat to beat. A Duncan dancer—or Rudolf Nureyev or Martha Graham—looks perfectly at home moving to music by Prince or Wuorinen. We can see that today, in part, because of modern dance’s desanctifying of music for dance.

Music was intrinsic to Balanchine’s notion of ballet. American modern dance began, early in the 20th century, with a decided shrug toward musical accompaniment. Ruth St. Denis and her protégées could talk of “music visualizations,” but almost any tinkling musical score seemed to be agreeable to St. Denis, so long as it helped her to evoke the exotic fantasy places and times of many of her dances. Duncan had appropriated most of the great classical composers and was angrily criticized for setting tawdry dance to their exalted music. But St. Denis ushered in three decades or so of music by mostly dreary nonentities or worthy pot-boilers. Does anyone today remember Arthur Finley Nevin, brother of Ethelbert, or Harvey Worthington Loomis, or even Wallingford Riegger?

Choreographers, among them traditionalists like the modern-dance great Doris Humphrey and ballet’s Jerome Robbins, discovered that dance could be successfully performed without any sort of music. And Merce Cunningham decided that dance need not depend at all on music for its essence. His notions of dance, as ground-breaking as Balanchine’s, developed with the avant-garde experimentation of John Cage, his life companion. (Similarly and as unusually, the quietly iconoclastic dance of Erick Hawkins owed much to vivid, propulsive music supplied by his wife Lucia Dlugoszewski, also a composer in her own right.)

Cunningham essentially gave equal value to the possibly extrinsic elements of dance production, like design and music, by commissions to be created separately from the dance. Music was never an afterthought, but its creation had nothing to do with Cunningham’s choreographic process. Famously, Cunningham dancers did not hear the music they were to move to until the first performance. One of the very minor pleasures of a Cunningham evening used to be the sight of his once-solemn dancers trying not to laugh at fortuitous events like an electronic groan coinciding with a leg rising slowly and heavily into the air.

The postmodernists of the late 1960s and ’70s tended to dismiss music. Need some kind of aural landscape for a dance piece? How about a little ambient sound? A tape collage put together by a non-musical friend? The important minimalist work of choreographers like Laura Dean and Lucinda Childs found the perfect musical counterparts in the early modular music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, in a much less intensely focused partnership than that of Balanchine and Stravinsky but one that helped define the work of all four artists and their time.

Increasingly, just about everything was fodder for a score, with New York choreographers haunting Tower Records and returning to the studio with wildly eclectic armloads of possibilities. Twyla Tharp brought the streets onto the proscenium stage in the mid-1970s, setting choreography flavored by popular dance forms to music by jazz, rock, and pop composers who had never before been associated with dance. Paul Taylor progressed from a recorded telephone time signal used as a musical score in the late 1950s to recent dances which utilized music that ranged from Depression-era popular songs and tangos by Astor Piazzolla to pieces by Handel and the 18th-century English composer William Boyce. Taylor’s new “Antique Valentine” was set to Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin performed on music boxes and player pianos.

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