So it was for French avant-garde choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, whose newest creation for New York City Ballet, set to music by John Cage, makes its debut at the NYCB Fall Gala on September 19 and will be performed throughout the Fall 2013 and Winter 2014 seasons.
As Preljocaj tells it, a friend recently gave him a CD of a vocal composition by Cage that the choreographer had never heard before. "I always thought that I knew the works of Cage very well," says Preljocaj, who has set several ballets to music by the experimental composer. "But this piece surprised me. It was not in the same mood or style of the Cage I knew."
A passage in the composition filled with nothing but the sound of breathing fired Preljocaj's imagination. "I wanted to find in the movement what is heard in the breathing," he says. The emphatic respiratory sounds prompted him to picture images, movement and an atmosphere, but these were just glimmerings of a work yet to take shape. "For me, the creation of a ballet is an adventure. If I know at the start exactly where the work will go, why do it?" he says.
For nearly three decades, Preljocaj's choreographic adventures: and adventurous choreography: have resulted in works bristling with daring intelligence and his singluar movement vocabulary that marries the dynamic thrust and angularity of contemporary dance with classic ballet steps.
A native of Paris born to Albanian refugee parents, Preljocaj has forged a career rich in creative dichotomies. His training as a dancer was in classical ballet before he turned to contemporary dance, which he studied with Merce Cunningham and Zina Rommett, among others. His choreographic home base is Ballet Preljocaj, his 26-member contemporary dance troupe in Aix-en- Provence, yet large classical ballet companies have commissioned his work for years, including the Paris Opera Ballet, La Scala of Milan and NYCB, where he created La Stravaganza to the music of Vivaldi and electronica in 1997. And while Preljocaj devises the occasional story ballet, like his 2008 Snow White, with the wicked queen updated as a dominatrix dressed by Jean Paul Gautier, most of his work is plotless and abstract. Such pieces he has described as "fundamental research" dealing with concepts such as weight, energy, dynamics and space.
The new work for NYCB falls firmly into the plotless category. Still, the ballet's ambience was influenced by a powerful historical incident: namely, the 1692 Salem witch trials where spectral evidence, gleaned in the dreams of the accusers, resulted in the death of innocent women. "When I heard the Cage music, my imagination went to that strange moment in time," Preljocaj says.
In early June, the choreographer flew to New York for two weeks to begin work on the new ballet with the Company. After watching class for three days, he chose his dancers and set up shop with them and his assistant in the theater's main studio. Before he started choreographing he laid the groundwork, teaching the dancers Preljocaj-style sequences for a couple of days. "He wanted to see how we moved," says principal dancer Tiler Peck.
"Sometimes I create movement in the studio and then show it to the dancers, but I prefer to start the research in front of the dancers," Preljocaj says. "They stimulate me and give me inspiration. If I work in front of the dancers, I can also adapt or adjust the movement to what they can do."
For classically trained dancers, Preljocaj's movement vocabulary, with its proximity to the floor, low plies and flashes of unexpected elements, like tai chi and yoga, is a dramatic departure. "It's completely the opposite of what we do every day," says Peck. "We're rolling on the ground, and ballerinas never roll on the ground. We're on our knees, and we don't normally do that. We're in ballet slippers instead of pointe shoes."
"Angelin is very specific about the shapes he wants to see," she adds. "He'll show a head one way or he'll say 'I want this to be really circular or this arm to be very straight, no diagonal.'"
Though the choreography was initially strange to them, the Company found it dancer-friendly, paced and structured in a way that allows them to embrace: and enjoy: its unconventional qualities. "It felt good for the body," says principal dancer Robert Fairchild. "Nothing was forced. Each step lent itself to the next. And when you have enough time, your body can find the best way to get there."
Preljocaj deliberately peppered the piece with isolated ballet moves, a ronde de jambe here, a grand jet_ there. "He would giggle to himself and say, 'a City Ballet moment,' as he did them," Peck recalls.
"I wanted to give the dancers a taste of the familiar," Preljocaj says. "They're great movers. They've been fed by Balanchine and Robbins, the two giants of choreography, but they're also influenced by the atmosphere of the city, and it's very nice to see this."
Back in France, Preljocaj mused about the process the new piece had to undergo before it was ready for the stage. "It needs time to mature," he says.
For Preljocaj that means thinking hard about it and studying the rehearsal video as the ballet's outline, content and details become increasingly clear. "Two weeks before the premiere I'll go back to New York, work the dancers, and slowly, the shape will come together, I hope."
Is that scary? "In a certain way," he says. But it is also necessary. "When I think of the creative process, I think of swimming alone in a big ocean. You have to leave the beach, which is safe, but it's also the clich_. You dive into the ocean all alone to get away from the clich_."