Concentric Paths: Movements in Music, a large-scale event reminiscent of the great Balanchine _Stravinsky days, features four different works by Thomas Ads interpreted by four choreographers, made all the more special by the composer himself participating as pianist and conductor. The dynamic program, a production of Sadler's Wells, illuminates the numerous dialogues possible between music and movement, and the imaginative ways artists of the body transmute the art of sound.
Wine paired with rich foods, perfume released on skin: the blending of individually complex elements involves a tricky chemistry. Matched with care, however, these marriages can transform discrete components into revelatory compounds. It turns out that British composer Thomas Ads's music slips perfectly into this sort of conversation with dance. Whether scored for a precise chamber grouping or the forces of a large ensemble, his artistry possesses a structure and momentum that the four choreographers whose work is encompassed by Concentric Paths: Movements in Music found especially compelling, even while its inherent complexity presented distinct challenges.
This evening-length program was initially put together and produced under the auspices of London dance presenter Sadler's Wells as part of its composer series in 2014. The production remounted Karole Armitage's duet Life Story, which uses Ads's score of the same name, as well as Wayne McGregor's Outlier, set to the composer's violin concerto Concentric Paths. To round out the show, two world premieres were com- missioned: Alexander Whitley's The Grit in the Oyster, built in response to Ads's Piano Quintet, and Crystal Pite's dynamic physical interpretation of the epically scaled Polaris. Adding further depth, Ads himself participates on stage as conductor and pianist.
As the music was already complete when each dance was created, the first task for each choreographer was to confront these fully formed sonic state- ments and determine how they might best integrate their own ideas. McGregor and Whitley began working on their dances by studying Ads's scores; while both of them read music, they sought out musician colleagues to help uncover even more of the information embedded in the page. Whitley found that such study allowed him a better pathway into Ads's Piano Quintet, exposing how its lines were stretched, condensed, and manipulated. It also offered insight into how its sonata form, a classic musical structure, was subverted over the course of the piece.
Using a contemporary lens to look at a traditional form emerged as a choreographic theme for Whitley: "I really wanted to get inside it as much as possible, so I sat down with another composer," he recalls. "He explained a lot of the patterning in the score and how these ideas were being used and developed in a way that, maybe to the untrained ear, wouldn't be obvious. That gave me an awful lot to think about in terms of how I might do similar things with movement material."
McGregor says that he found the score for the violin concerto Concentric Paths to be a particularly rich resource as well. "When you understand it: the organization of time, its grammar, its visual look, where the melody lines start: all of these things feed into the ways in which I think about organizing my dance."
This deep study of the music's richness on the part of the choreographers then led them toward serious consideration of a central question: with so much content already being communicated through the music, in what ways might movement further enrich the audience experience?
It's something Whitley was keenly aware of as he began to work. "I think the challenge is that music like this and contemporary choreography are vying for the same territory," he explains. "So I had to consider how I could set movement to it that respected that, but also found a place alongside it so that the music didn't completely dominate the picture or, alternatively, that the movement didn't ignore the rich complexity of what was going on in the music. Sometimes a strategy for dealing with rich music is to set the movement at a distance from it, but I wanted to make something that was quite intimately set against it but still obviously in a place of its own."
Of the program's four pieces, Karole Armitage's dance for Ads's Life Story is built on com-paratively streamlined sonic content: soprano and piano. Still, the duet raised other types of challenges due to the clear, darkly humorous storyline of its text: a poem of the same name by Tennessee Williams. Armitage says she needed the spareness of the sound world in order for her to feel the dance could comfortably coexist with the music, but she wasn't bothered by the explicit narrative: "Some moments have metaphoric intent and power, and some of them are just the sheer joy of watching time crystallized in a visual sense," she explains, finding that ultimately the relationship is "kind of like making love to the music; you have a certain independence, but you're also deeply entwined and connected."
Armitage found the interplay of text, piano, and movement to be an advantage in setting forth her vision. "What I'm most interested in is multiple perspectives and how you can see the world from all these different angles and levels at the same time. There's a great articulation in this simultaneity. So seeing the same thing repeated in completely different ways but inhabiting the exact same space at the exact same time, I think that's about as interesting as it gets. We live in a quantum world, after all."
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Crystal Pite's Polaris takes as its starting point perhaps the program's densest, if not necessarily its most complex, composition. A shimmer of percussion, harp, and winds charge the air while swells of strings and the pomp of brass phrases drive a journey of sorts, the music sailing a full orchestra through an immense landscape.
"I remember listening to it in a hotel room for the first time and just laughing out loud, thinking about how crazy it would be to try to choreograph to that," Pite recalls. The outrageousness of the music's scale proved to be a siren song, however. "How preposterous it was made me want to do it. As soon as I started imagining this cast of thousands, then I started to get excited about it. I wasn't going to be able to do it just across a couple of bodies: it was going to take a huge cast of people to be able to meet that music."
All told, she ended up marshalling 66 dancers, who often worked in teams to create building blocks of movement that Pite laid out across the music, using the score as a script of sorts. While the project was a departure from the smaller company and less prominent music she normally works with, she discovered that the experience broadened her view of the type of dance she could create. "My normal movement language was absorbed into these massive structures. What I discovered is that actually you can get away with a lot more simplicity when you're working with that many people. I could use the movement language that I work with, my own vocabulary, my own style, and see it extend and stretch out and sustain in a different way in relation to time with that many people."
That sense of stretching and experi- mentation also cycles back to further illuminate the expressive power of the scores. Contemporary classical music has a track record of downplaying its human element to a certain degree, often attempting to remove as much visual distraction from the aural presentation as possible. While the live production of music provides its own built-in choreography simply through the movements of its performers, more blatantly showcasing that expression through dance sets up a truly transformative situation, bringing to the fore the music's physical manifesta- tion in space and time.
"It's interesting, isn't it, that translation from one form to another, or the moment where one thing becomes something else?" McGregor inquires, his rapid-fire delivery of ideas mirroring the energy of his dancing. "I think that's one of the very beautiful things about dance, that sense of becoming other. I would imagine when you're writing music, it's in many ways quite an insular process. But then to have it have a life through and with bodies: there's something really extraordinary about that, because I think it connects with human emotion viscerally, in a unique way. I think it channels the composer's idea differently, and to be part of that is very powerful."
And so it is with a compelling spirit of reinvention that the choreographers mined their own vocabularies to reflect and contrast with the form and content of Ads's musical ideas, discovering synergies and transposing across disciplines. In the final production, Ads's distinct musical signature stands as the unifying thread, with each dance offering a dynamic physical solution to an intriguing sonic proposition.
Molly Sheridan is a writer, editor, and producer specializing in classical and experimental music, with a focus on multimedia content designed for the web.