Potential Energies-rehearsals
Performers as Co-Creators

Performers as Co-Creators

At the moment we at The Nouveau Classical Project are working on our largest undertaking thus far: Potential Energies, which will premiere in Brooklyn at BAM Fisher on May 29. It’s a modern ballet where the musicians and dancers share an equal role on stage. Each player is paired together with a dancer in order to demonstrate two sides of a single identity which, in the subject matter of the ballet, is an attempt to reconcile ambitions with reality.

This project has involved intense collaboration between musicians and dancers and was unlike anything most of the musicians of NCP and I had experienced. Through the process of directing Potential Energies and creating it with my ensemble, choreographer Barbie Diewald, and her company TrioDance Collective, I had the chance to immerse myself in the world of dance and learned a great deal about collaboration.

We’ve had workshops and rehearsals twice each week since October, totaling four-six hours a week. For the most part, dancers were required to be at all six hours of rehearsal. (I went to all rehearsals, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing my job.) There were times when it was absolutely grueling.

To begin with, the piece involves ten performers: five musicians (myself included) and five dancers. And this isn’t a piece where musicians are simply learning a score and accompanying dancers; in fact, for much of the ballet, memorizing the music (composed by Trevor Gureckis) is required.

Potential Energies-rehearsals

It was clear from the start that musicians would need to contribute movement ideas because the musicians knew what their bodies were capable of doing while playing their instruments, and our goal was to create movement that was as natural and uncontrived as possible. When I started attending the workshops that involved only dancers, what struck me was the way Barbie asked her dancers to generate choreographic material. Sometimes Barbie would have ideas right off the bat, but oftentimes we would discuss the idea behind whatever section of the ballet we happened to be working on that day, and the dancers would create phrases that we would possibly use, discard, or save for later. (As far as the music goes, it is through-composed and that collaboration primarily existed between the exchange of ideas between Barbie, Trevor, and myself.)

While there are opportunities for musicians to have a sense of compositional decision-making in aleatoric pieces or in improv-based music, such as jazz, I am particularly curious about how a classical composer and musician can build a piece together from the ground up. Co-creation is something not often explored in the classical genre, and after working on Potential Energies, I’ve been thinking about how the choreographer-dancer process could be applied in creating new compositions. I know that composers and performers often collaborate, but it often seems limited to commissioning and/or sharing ideas about performance execution rather than the creation of material.

Potential Energies-rehearsals

Potential Energies, rehearsal shot
Photo by Mickey Hoelscher

During the creation of Potential Energies, Barbie mentioned to me that she needs the bodies present (choreography software exists but she said it’s not that great) so that is probably a factor in her highly collaborative process, but she also depends on the creative minds of her dancers and their improvisations, and in the case of Potential Energies, input from the musicians as well. In depth composer-performer collaborations would allow musicians the chance to have a stronger creative voice beyond the artistry of performance, especially for those of us who do not compose. Just like the choreographer in the dance process, the composer would form the final composition, but in this case there would be a significant amount of input from the musicians, and it seems improvisation would be essential to the process as well.

I would love to hear about any unique composer-performer collaborations that have taken place or are in the works! Please share in the comments below.

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4 thoughts on “Performers as Co-Creators

  1. Pingback: on dancing while playing the cello… (part 3: Performers as Co-Creators) | Mae Mai

  2. Anne Midgette

    The University of Maryland has done two amazing fully-choreographed orchestral performances with the MacArthur-awarded choreographer Liz Lerman, the most recent an “Appalachian Spring” at the beginning of this month. Check out the video; it’s remarkable. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGSctM_8K_E

    For the first, “Afternoon of a Faun,” the only people on stage were instrumentalists; for “Appalachian Spring” they also used two dancers/non-players: one a woman in her 70s, the other a conducting student.

    I wrote an advance article about the project and reviewed it, and these articles are on my author page, linked here, if anyone is interested.

  3. william osborne

    You mention you would like to hear from composer/performer collaborators. My wife Abbie and I have worked together for the last 30 years creating music theater one-woman shows I compose and she performs. We spent years working together to develop the techniques to performs these works. Since they require the ability to sing, play the trombone, pantomime, act, and work with masks, she is the only person currently capable of performing them. We keep a van and equipment in both Europe and America and have performed in over 150 cities.

    Abbie comments on my work during the entire compositional process. (I often get sent back to the drawing board.) It would take pages to describe how we collaborate, but perhaps some video will give you an idea. Our work “Miriam” was filmed in the Hamburg State Opera in 1990. It illustrates the wide array of skills Abbie must employ:


    We wrote the texts for our last two works together. “Cybeline” is about a cyborg trying to prove she is human by being talk show host. Abbie wrote most of the text and also drew all the cartoons for a video she interacts with during performance. The first few minutes of the video of Cybeline should give you an idea of how it all comes together:


    And here is a 12 minutes demo video of our newest work Aletheia. It is still in the process of revision, but the video illustrates how we are finally perfecting the art of creating videos of our works – which among other things, required creating our own video studio:


    We have essays by both Abbie and I that describe our theories of chamber music theater here:


    There are many more videos and slide shows of our work dating back 30 years in the music theater section of our website:


    I see a comment above by the music journalist, Anne Midgette. When she lived in Munich in the 80s and early 90s she helped us as a volunteer assistant when we were producing “Miriam” for the Munich Biennale. Her very helpful efforts, for which we remain thankful, included climbing up on high scaffolding to hang lights even though she suffered from acrophobia. So many memories, and I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface of what we are trying to do.

    We wish you every success with the challenging work you are doing. I notice that in one of the photos there are 9 women and 1 man. The gendered aspects of performance art would be a great topic for another blog entry.


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