Composing Youth

American Festival for the Arts, Houston Ballet Academy host teen summer workshop

When student choreographer Cleopatra Williams heard the dance score that teenage composer Jude Vaclavik had composed for her, she thought the screams and groans he had injected into the melody were difficult to handle. Otherwise, the dissonant, multi-keyed work remotely inspired by John Adams's later works communicated the earthy, tribal feel she wanted. She even liked the off-beat rhythm. There were plenty of meaty melodies to construct a spicy dance number, so Vaclavik made the changes Williams wanted.

Vaclavik's music coaches at American Festival for the Arts (AFA) and Williams's Houston Ballet Academy instructors ultimately saw a dress rehearsal. They liked it. Duets effectively melded into trios. Edges were sharp or smooth where they needed to be. And Williams's contemporary vocabulary put Vaclavik's cacophonous melodies to good use. Even Ben Stevenson, artistic director, liked the piece, despite stylistic inconsistencies.

A sinewy, spike-haired all-female ensemble will dance Williams's piece set to Vaclavik's score at a recital this week at Houston Ballet Academy. New works by other students will also be on tap.

Area teens construct dance pieces to music composed by other area teens.
Phillippe Diederich
Area teens construct dance pieces to music composed by other area teens.

J. Todd Frazier, AFA director, remembers taking a course at Julliard that allowed him to write new music for dancers. Years later, he has adapted the program for Houston high school students who attend AFA's annual Summer Music Conservatory at Episcopal High School. For two years, AFA composition students have paired off with Ballet Academy students handpicked to write original dance works. The composers spend three weeks writing melodies. Meliora Winds, a touring woodwind quintet composed of AFA faculty members, records each score for student choreographers, who have four weeks to put steps together to any style imaginable. After more than 60 rehearsal hours, choreographers and troupes perform a trial run critiqued by workshop instructors. If a student group makes the cut, the new works get to the stage.

Here's how a typical rehearsal works: Take high school senior Adam Hawk and 17-year-old choreographer Brain Enos, for example. Recently, Hawk sat down at the piano and played Enos a pre-composed piece. Enos listened, appeared interested, then asked Hawk to score a short dance with a driving beat. Hawk felt inspired to write something very lyrical and subdued, something "that would make [someone] feel [they] don't know exactly where [they] are," he says. Rather than scribble notes on paper then transpose for different instruments, Hawk banged out a few harmonies right there.

In the second movement, Hawk pieced together distinct musical gestures for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. Then he glued them together, with rhythm driving the third movement. He chose 9/8 meter, which he knew would be pretty difficult to dance to and atypical of most dance music. The melody came to him after he squared the beat with the rest of the piece. When Enos got the finished music from Hawk, he had no idea what kind of dance he would make up.

It would be a tough task. Enos had 14 dancers, all female, and a difficult rhythm to tame. The absence of male dancers meant no sexy male-female duets or scintillating 8-foot leaps across the stage. Still, Enos put together a solid piece. "Since the flute carried most of the melody, he [featured] a solo dancer," says Hawk. "For the chords, he had a bunch of girls. . . doing cool movements I'd never seen before. Nine/eight (meter) is pretty hard to dance to."

And here's what a critique is like: Ballet Academy instructors Clara Cravey and Steve Brule listened to Hawk's music and decided they liked it. But they had a few problems with Enos's piece. Despite impressive line formations, clever use of trios and splayed-finger gestures, Brule thought the piece begged for a climax. Both instructors explained that dance works staged to modern music always need some rising and falling action. Enos's piece would require more work before the AFA recital.

While some young composers won't hear their compositions at the Ballet Academy recital because of space, all of the new music will have some play before a live audience. Adults who see these works will find it difficult to believe teens wrote them. AFA director Frazier is impressed with the results. "These youth are striving to create something totally new through composition and choreography," he says. "Art is being created where there was absolutely nothing before."

Houston Ballet Academy students perform new dance works by student choreographers, set to new music by American Festival for the Arts composers, Wednesday and Thursday, July 21 and 22, at 7 p.m. at Houston Ballet Academy, 1921 West Bell. Tickets are $5 at the door. Call (713)523-6300.

 
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