Rhythm Is A Dancer

Over the past ten days I have attended two events in the modern dance world—the 10th anniversary celebration of the Queens, New York-based organization Topaz Arts and the 30th anniversary gala of the Washington, D.C.-based Dance Place. Both of these organizations have played significant roles in my musical life, and it was wonderful to reconnect with old friends and colleagues, not to mention be reminded that dancers are incredibly fun people!

Collaborating with modern dancers was a cornerstone of my early composing life, and those experiences helped shape my musical voice. When I was starting out in the world after college graduation, it seemed like working with modern dancers would be a good way to continue making music (which in my case was primarily electronic at that time) and getting it out into the world. I had already been exposed to quite a bit of modern dance in college, when my interest in John Cage led to an equal fascination with Merce Cunningham. I began to spend time at Dance Place in D.C. and quickly found a whole world of young choreographers who were hungry for new music to accompany their works. Perfect! All of a sudden I had more projects than I knew what to do with—and I did them all—which turned quickly into actual commissions. Before I knew it, I had a very respectable portfolio of works. A favorite continues to be this piece, which was one of the very first collaborations. The choreographer wanted to do the project “Cage/Cunningham style” so all he would tell me was that the piece would be six-minutes long, and that he was planning on using a big bowl of marbles as a prop.

The process of collaboration, whether it is with dance, theater, visual art, film, or what have you, is surprisingly similar to living in a foreign country! For instance:

You have to learn to speak another language
Every art form has it’s own “jargon” and manner of talking about creative process and the assorted nuts and bolts involved. If one plans to spend time with that art form, it is useful to get a handle on that information! A lot of composers speak disparagingly about how choreographers deal with rhythm. The truth is that dancers tend to have highly developed, brilliant senses of rhythm, and they often understand it in a completely different way than a musician does. Dancers with musical training can more easily bridge that gap, but often both collaborators will have to dig a little to discover how they can communicate effectively about different aspects of their work. This is true for any art form, and often I have found that although the manner in which artists talk about their work can be very different, the actual processes and pathways to creating that work are often surprisingly similar.

The ability to tolerate ambiguity is important
This is closely related to the above point. In any kind of collaboration, all parties bring with them certain assumptions about their working process and about how the collaboration will go. For instance, one artist may be super organized and task-oriented, while the other artist prefers to “wing it” from moment to moment and “see what happens.” These two can work very effectively together if they take the time to discover these qualities about one another, or if they don’t figure it out, there may be a lot of frustration on both sides. In any collaborative process, there has to be openness to the working style of others, and an understanding that there may be some amount of time devoted to working out the kinks in the nature of the collaboration.

Collaboration brings a new perspective on your music
I learned so much about composing through my work with modern dance choreographers, especially around the structuring of a work, creating effective transitions, the necessity of incorporating clear cues, and drawing out the dramatic elements of a dance with music. The physicality of dance was always such a wonderful and welcome contrast to the cerebral process of making music that I continue to try to infuse my current works with a visceral sense of motion.

Note of caution: Neither ASCAP nor BMI include music for dance in their performance surveys, so if royalties are what you’re after, this is not the way to get them! However, writing music for dance is still a great way to grow audiences for new music, and to grow one’s self as an artist.

One thought on “Rhythm Is A Dancer

  1. davidwolfson

    I, too, wrote a lot of music for modern dance a couple of decades ago, and apropos of dancers and rhythm I have to share one story: I wrote a piece for one choreographer which had (I thought) a pretty obviously prevailing rhythm, in 4/4, no less. (The piece was to have references to courtly dance, as I recall.) I made a MIDI demo of the piece, which was to be eventually played by string quartet; the choreographer listened to it, we discussed it, mapped it out, I made some changes. It wasn’t until the second rehearsal I attended that I realized she was hearing it with the downbeat one eighth note later than I had written it. After I got over my initial shock, I learned to count it that way too, and the piece was none the worse for it.

    Lest anyone think from that story I don’t respect dancers’ senses of rhythm, let me also say what a revelation it was watching the Nancy Meehan Dance Company all start moving in perfect unison and in tempo after a 30-second stillness, without a visible or audible cue. After I’d asked how the hell that was done, I was told that they’d all just counted. Wow.

    David Wolfson

    Reply

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