Composing Dance, Choreographing Music

By Mauro, Lucia | Dance Teacher, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Composing Dance, Choreographing Music


Mauro, Lucia, Dance Teacher


Chicago dance company directors share their tips on how to find, pay and work productively with a composer.

The boundaries of dance keep getting pushed into more ambiguous territory, with movement set to video projection and spoken word, or executed in silence. But most artists agree that dance and music remain perfectly paired.

This doesn't always have to mean recorded accompaniment. If you have the funds, you may prefer to follow in the footsteps of such legendary collaborators as Balanchine and Stravinsky, working directly with composers on original scores to inspire, shape and clarify your own artistic visions. Dance Teacher spoke with several Chicago choreographers who seek out and create musical partnerships. These artists offer advice on finding a composer best suited to a dance company's needs, negotiating fees and avoiding misunderstandings.

Finding the Eight Composer

According to Shirley Mordine, artistic director of the 35-year-old Mordine & Co. Dance Theater, "You really have to make sure he or she has a dance sensibility." Mordine, who has always had a penchant for varied arts partnerships, also considers it important to find composers who will challenge her rather than simply provide a service. To teachers and company directors, she suggests asking around for recommendations and attending live music performances whenever possible.

If you see a performance you like, talk with the musicians afterward to ascertain the feasibility of a collaboration. Recently, Mordine partnered with local jazz musician and composer David Pavkovic on "Open Space Project," held at a jazz club against the backdrop of Chicago's skyscrapers and elevated train tracks. Pavkovic's band provided live music. "As a composer, I've always visualized counterpoint," says Pavkovic, who works with other dance companies as well. (Counterpoint is the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture.) "Dance, to me, is a visual representation of counterpoint. I connect to dancers on that level."

Sometimes, a composer's adventurous spirit is all that is needed. Molly Shanahan, founder and artistic director of Mad Shak Dance Company, a modern troupe wellknown in the Windy City for its dance-music partnerships, met her company's resident composer, percussionist Kevin O'Donnell, after hearing his band play at a local club about 10 years ago. O'Donnell was intrigued by the idea of working with Shanahan's then fledgling dance company. "In music school, I felt isolated," he explains. "With Mad Shak, I felt like I was part of something."

Shanahan, a believer in dance as a natural human ability, convinced O'Donnell to experiment with movement himself in order to better understand dance. "I had never danced before or seen a dance concert," he admits. "But I was up for anything and excited to work on something original. Molly was my composition teacher. I was able to see her make a phrase and distill it."

The Question of Fees

Hiring a composer may seem an unattainable luxury but, in fact, there are a multitude of ways you can arrange to pay for one.

Mad Shak is fortunate enough to be able to afford a standard seasonal salary for O'Donnell, thanks to grants and donations brought in by the company's board, a diverse group of businesspeople. Mordine tries to secure grants as well. But if that is not possible, she has created at least three different fee ranges from which a composer can choose, depending on her budget limitations at the time. No matter what, she tells him or her upfront that the pay is not very high. Within a given fee range, she negotiates the time commitment and number of musicians with the composer in advance and sometimes offers free promotional perks.

Julia Rhoads, founder and artistic director of the five-year-old Lucky Plush Productions, an interdisciplinary performance company rooted in experimental dance, applies for grants from state arts organizations such as the Illinois Arts Council as well as corporate and individual sponsors. …

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