Even if you don't know who Moby is, you've heard his music. The superstar electronic musician who defies categorization has provided recordings for film soundtracks (The Bourne Identity, Syriana, Any Given Sunday and Black Hawk Down) and for countless commercials promoting companies like Apple, American Express, Nordstrom and Bailey's Irish Cream. In fact, every track on Moby's 1999 CD Play has been licensed for use by some corporate venture. But on May 25th, Houston Ballet partners up with Moby for an entirely new enterprise: the Houston premiere of Play, a choreographic take on Moby's Grammy Award-winning album by company artistic director Stanton Welch, who happens to be a huge Moby fan.
"I became familiar with Moby's music as an 18-year-old going out to clubs," says Welch. "I remember when the techno craze with synthesized music really was the new form of music." The ballet Play uses eight tracks from Moby's CD of the same name. For Houston Ballet, Welch is expanding the work's cast from the original number of 16 dancers in the 2004 premiere of the piece by BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. While Moby hasn't seen the ballet himself, Welch says, "He was thrilled to have a dance made to it."
So who is Moby and why has his music become so contagious? Born in Connecticut as Richard Hall (the name Moby comes from his blood relations to Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick), the musical maverick learned classical guitar at age 10, then found his way into everything from punk bands and the speed metal genre to anarchist noise combos. "I want to have the broadest possible sonic palette to draw on when I'm composing music," said Moby in an interview with The New York Times. Part of that versatility led him to explore a kinder, gentler form of hip hop.
In fact, it is the haunting hip hop breakbeat rhythms that provide the binding glue for Play, an album that has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Taking ambient music‹a genre that utilizes styles as disparate as electronic, jazz, and traditional music‹to another level, Moby pulled all his resources together in Play to appeal to a wide audience. For example, the song "Natural Blues" places the soulful voice of the legendary Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers against a sleek techno backbeat. "Honey" is a vigorous 4/4 meter upbeat dance cut, while "Run On" creates a mix from an old, scratchy gospel recording. Contrasting rich instrumentals with folksy voices, countering cool with warm, Moby humanizes clinical electronic pop with vocal artists from the past.
Of course, dances that draw inspiration from pop and rock music didn't begin with Houston Ballet and Moby. The marriage of pop music and classical ballet vocabulary may have initially looked to skeptics like a shotgun wedding, but it has evolved into a lasting affair. The Joffrey Ballet, in the late 1960s and 1970s, pioneered rock ballets and commissioned Twyla Tharp to choreograph the Beach Boys-inspired Deuce Coupe, her first work using a company of ballet-trained dancers. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens toured its production of the Who's Tommy around the world, while Tharp's Movin' Out with music by Billy Joel is currently on the road for an extended domestic tour. In 2002, Welch was asked to choreograph a section of American Ballet Theatre's Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison. And just last season, Houston Ballet energized audiences with Christopher Bruce's sexy ballet Rooster, set to music by The Rolling Stones.
With Play, Welch stays true to Moby's musical pulse, while adding his own personal spin. "It's a very New York ballet," says Welch, who derived his initial inspiration as an urban observer. "When I was living in New York, I got entrenched in the city life. You open the door and there's a crowded street with pedestrian traffic. If you put on your iPod and watch people walking and working, somehow it becomes a dance." Indeed, the dancers in Play march, slide, scoot and accelerate their motion with cinematic sweep.
The song "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" features a solo for a businessman whose emotions consume him, while passersby pace to their own detached rhythms. The couples who get intimate seem like the type who can't live with or without each other. And the gospel-inspired "Natural Blues" generates a steady flow of foot traffic that symbolizes lives driven by stimulation, loneliness, and an elusive spiritual search.
Play shares the triple bill (called Moby in Motion), which runs from May 25-June 4, with two contrasting works, Velocity and Gloria. Welch's Velocity, making its American debut, ramps classical virtuosity up to the breakneck speed of Michael Torke's music. The masterwork Gloria, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan to Francis Poulenc's choral score, creates a moving elegy to the lost generation of young men who died in World War I.
Like Moby, Welch gravitates to eclecticism in art, and Moby in Motion reflects that vivacity and dynamism.
Joseph Carman is a contributing editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions).