Q & A: Christopher Rouse

Classic Arts Features   Q & A: Christopher Rouse
Peter Martins' new ballet, Friandises, which New York City Ballet premieres on February 10, has a brand-new score by Pulitzer Prize _winning composer Christopher Rouse.

Since most new ballets are set to existing music, it's not often that today's composers have the opportunity to collaborate with a dance company. This month, Christopher Rouse will have two such opportunities‹and oddly enough, both involve the same composition.

On February 10, New York City Ballet will perform the world premiere of a ballet choreographed by Peter Martins to Mr. Rouse's new score, Friandises. On February 22, the Juilliard Dance Ensemble will perform the world premiere of a piece choreographed by Adam Hougland to Mr. Rouse's new score, Friandises. The work was co-commissioned by New York City Ballet and the Juilliard School, which celebrates its centennial this year. Having two fresh choreographic responses to a single piece of new music available in such a concentrated period is an extreme rarity‹enticing for music lovers, compelling for dancegoers, and fascinating for anyone interested in contemporary culture.

While Friandises is Mr. Rouse's first piece written specifically for dance, his music is ubiquitous on the current scene. His emotionally expressive scores have been played by nearly every major orchestra in the U.S., while the soloists who champion his work include Emanuel Ax, Sharon Isbin, Yo-Yo Ma, and Dawn Upshaw. Mr. Rouse won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his Trombone Concerto and was Composer of the Year at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for 2004-05. Mr. Rouse currently teaches composition at Juilliard.

Mr. Rouse's score for Friandises pulses with a playfully debonair energy; his handling of existing French dance forms is swift and sure, and he has even thrown in a few musical jokes near the finale for anyone with a working knowledge of the can-can. Quieter episodes are lyrical but not sentimental; the underlying drive keeps things moving. Mr. Martins' ballet (also called Friandises), as seen at an early rehearsal, meets and matches the youthful flair of the music with a lively abstract dance that sends a large cast flying with disciplined virtuosity.

How did this commission come about?

For some years I had wanted to write music intended for dance. Other concert works of mine had been choreographed, but that was not the original intent for the music. I had put out the word that I wanted to write music for dance, to compose a piece that from the get-go was music for movement. Peter Martins had choreographed Infernal Machine a few years ago to a piece of mine, so he had a sense of my work, and New York City Ballet contacted me through my publisher. I started composing the piece during spring of last year.

One piece by you will be presented with two different dance styles.

It will be interesting to compare what the two choreographers come up with. I'm not writing a story ballet; instead, it's a multi-movement suite, almost like a French suite. It's just rhythmic music that the choreographers can make of and do with what they want. The title, Friandises, means bits, little bits and pieces.

Where do your musical ideas come from?

K-Mart. [Laughs.] I have no idea. One minute musical ideas are right there, and then they're gone. For me, musical ideas are not the result of conscious work. Conscious work comes in the process of shaping and changing and fashioning an idea once it's there. Original ideas‹I don't think anyone knows where they came from.

Did you work closely with the choreographers?

Not really. They left me alone to write the music, to follow my own creative process. In turn, I figure it's fair play for me to leave them alone while they are doing their work. I have no preconceived concept of what the choreographers should be doing. When the score is finished, whatever they want to do choreographically is all in their ballpark.

How did you feel when you attended a rehearsal for Peter Martins' new ballet and first saw his choreography to your score?

It was amazing to see these dancers perform. That might sound utterly silly to people in the dance world, since the dancers were just doing what they do, but watching them go up on point and hold it and make it look beautiful is absolutely stunning. Dancers might say that's their job, but as someone coming from a different direction, I was just watching open-mouthed. Peter has used a lot of young dancers for this piece; many of them are still teenagers. I was very touched by what they were doing.

I told Peter that his choreography in the Sarabande, for three couples, was particularly wonderful‹graceful and elegant‹though that's not to take anything away from the rest of the dance. Some of the dancing to the fast music would take more than one viewing to process, just to keep track of where everyone's going, all the entrances and exits.

The City Ballet dancers now know this score of yours better than anyone.

They know it intimately. That's impressive. The music that I write for orchestra has so many elements that it can be hard to reduce it to down to something that works on the piano, so how Peter and the dancers found their way through the score is remarkable. When you think of the repertoire they have to know, the sheer number of parts in all the different ballets they dance, it's amazing.

Any unexpected issues appear during rehearsal?

We really only needed to confer on one thing, which relates to my old phobia about having musical breaks between movements of a score. I think things should be more continuous, and I don't like double bars except at the end of the piece. In Friandises, the sound of a sizzle cymbal continues between sections. To get that, little metal rivets are inserted into the cymbals so that you get a sizzling sound as they hit against the brass of the cymbal. In rehearsal, Peter told me he was not sure how he wanted to handle that. I said that whatever he needed to have it work as a dance was fine. And we came up with a solution.

Would you like your composition to have a life beyond ballet?

I wrote this as something that could function as a concert piece. Many 19th-century ballet scores…well, they may work theatrically, but they are not consistently of a sufficiently high order to succeed purely as a listening experience in a concert hall. (Tschaikovsky is the exception; his works are danced, and they're performed on their own. He and Delibes really improved the quality of music for ballet, though Delibes has been a little forgotten as concert music.) That changed with the 20th century. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is still performed as concert music and as a ballet. The irony is that so many 20th-century works that were composed for ballet are hardly ever danced, while pieces conceived as concert works are constantly being adapted for dance. Balanchine made Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements into a great ballet, for example, while Copland's ballet scores live in the concert hall. De Falla's Three-Cornered Hat is ballet music that you hear in concert but don't see on the stage, as is Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé.

So, sure, I hope I have written a piece that could work in the concert hall as well as for dance. But really, having two new dances made to a piece of mine‹that's fun for me.

Robert Sandla writes frequently about the arts.

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