Ballet Music: A Second Fiddle?

In ballet, music is almost always second fiddle, necessarily subservient to choreography. So, why then are pop composers as diverse as Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and the Pet Shop Boys composing ballet scores?  Is ballet music finally getting some respect?

Yes but. There’s also another trend that sees ballet companies reviving classical works and tweaking everything but the score. Setting “Giselle” in a Polish concentration camp as the Northern Ballet Company did in 1990 only sounds disruptive. The alterations were largely superficial, with the production retaining most of the original choreography and the 1841 Adolphe Adam score.

“The thing about it is – ever since Tchaikovsky first elevated the ballet music beyond simply being musical noodlings to provide an agreeable accompaniment for dancers – the relationship between choreographers and composers has become such a dynamic and fertile meeting place, that it’s given rise to some of most challenging musical works of the modern era.”  That’s the perspective of Max Richter, writing in Q Magazine three years ago.

Richter views the 1913 version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as the seminal event in the development of contemporary ballet music. “From here ballet music splintered into many directions from Prokofiev to Ravel and Copland – but at its core it has remained a space for innovative thinking – take for instance John Cage’s collaborative experiments with Merce Cunningham and Philip Glass’ works with Lucinda Childs.


Unlocking the Choreographer’s Brain | Classic, Contemporary Music

In a 2015 interview, director Dave Hurlbert admitted that his aesthetic is far from the world of tutus and toe shoes. “I would say we’re a classically trained ballet company performing in a modern idiom. In our inaugural season, we produced nine new works ranging from a fresh look at Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ to a work set to ‘Blast,’ street music by the Young Fellaz.”

No surprise then that It took Marigny Opera Ballet less than a season to begin commissioning scores by Louisiana composers as well as original choreography to iconic classics like “Orfeo” and “Giselle” (aka “Giselle Deslondes”).

“I’d wanted to produce a version of Monteverdi’s ‘L’Orfeo’ for years,” Hurlbert said. “I made a new translation of the 1609 libretto, hoping to stage an English language version of the original work. Eventually it hit me — the Marigny Opera Ballet could dance the opera, at least the story, and so I streamlined the libretto into a two-act scenario for ballet.”

Next, he paired composer Fuller and choreographer Maya Taylor with conductor Francis Scully and the New Resonance Orchestra, with all three working together to realize the story of the demigod Orpheus, his love for Eurydice and the tragedy they encounter.

“Writing for ballet is hard, “acknowledges composer Fuller, who has scored “Orfeo,” “Giselle Deslondes” and other ballets. Not a dancer himself, he relies on imagination and is always curious to see if what he’s imagining aligns with Maya’s vision. All the same, his own creative process is straightforward. “I take the scenario and parcel it into numbers and scenes. From there, I start writing and imagining what the dance might be like and how much time it might take. . . .  I then sit down with Dave and Maya to talk through how I visualize everything happening. I come up with a blueprint. Then, when Maya starts working with the choreography, she might say ‘this section is a little long’ or ‘can you add a couple of bars here. ‘ ”

It’s a collaboration based on mutual respect.

“I worked with Maya on last year’s ‘Orfeo.’  She’s disciplined and focused. No waiting around for the muse to strike, if you know what I mean. Maya’s also very thoughtful. We click very well when we’re talking about character and motivation.”

“It’s fun, too, because Maya and Dave will sometimes see something or will have an idea about how to do something. So, it’s a real collaboration.”

Fuller composed “Orfeo” for four violins, two violas, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and harp, the instrument most closely related to Orpheus’ lyre.  “The score that Tucker created is a mix of contemporary and classical,” Taylor said. “And so, with his score, I’ve been able to play with the elements of ballet and modern together, which has been a great challenge as a choreographer.”

“Tucker has his very specific style of composing and music, which is really beautiful and intricate,” Taylor continued. “I was really inspired by it. … My brain unlocked when I heard his music, and anytime I got stuck, I would just listen to it over and over and over again. And it was really, really fun.”

“Orfeo” returns for three encore performances beginning on April 14th.


“ORFEO” 2015

From Marigny Opera Ballet delivers an ardent, reimagined ‘Orfeo’ (10/2/2015)

“This is no hypermodern rejection of tradition. Nor does it need to be. Instead, she [Taylor] imbues a piece customarily filtered through the literal voices of opera (Gluck and especially Monteverdi) with an alternate imperative that is potentially no less compelling.

In this respect, Fuller’s music acts as a kind of reference point in which listeners, aided here by a just‑plush‑enough church acoustic, are themselves teased, charmed, and, once in a while, hurled into what is unfolding in front of them.

The score, played by an accomplished 13‑member string/woodwind chamber orchestra conducted by Francis Scully, is by necessity in service to the dancers ‑‑ and its intrinsic vitality does very well in that regard. Still, there’s quite a bit more to absorb, particularly in how Fuller manages to evoke a Baroque pastoral sensibility (double reeds, most colorfully), constructed with just enough angularity to remind us how the relationship between Orpheus and Eurydice can veer suddenly from bliss into catastrophe.

-Andrew Adler