How do you do something together? How do you work together — how do you dream together?
A lot of different kinds of collaboration go into making dance and in many cases, the entire process of making concert dance is one of combining and coordinating different visions, different kinds of individual creativity. The art of collaboration is so fundamental to the art of dance that you would think we would know more about how it actually works. But collaboration is complicated, and it’s not a skill that is easily reduced to a set of fundamentals.
So maybe it would help to think of a different word, like ‘cooperation’. The idea of ‘collaborating’ sounds a little more involved than just ‘cooperating’, and that may obscure the essential questions that decide whether collaboration can be successful. How do you do something together? How do you work together — how do you dream together?
David Jennings has a background that’s made for answering those questions. He’s written an original score called Dancing As Life for a new work by choreographer Lamaiya Lancaster and her company L-Theory Collective —a classic example of collaboration in dance. But it may be the other things that Jennings is known for that make him such a resource in identifying what it takes to collaborate successfully, to cooperate well. He’s spent most of his professional life in two different but related arts. He’s a jazz musician. And he’s a teacher.
Cooperation in jazz can be as fast as lightning. Jazz musicians spend years developing a set of technical skills and proficiency as elaborate as in any art form. But in performance, they reimagine their art in eighth notes and sixteenth notes, often faster than conscious thought. Cooperation in teaching — the collaboration between student and teacher in the process of learning —is much more extensive. It’s not something that can happen in a single moment, it has to be a process where each interaction, each moment of collaboration, builds on the ones before.
When it comes to cooperation though, those two worlds may not be very different at all. If you were going to identify the basic skills, the underlying principles that make collaboration successful, they would have to be the same, whether they come into play a sixteenth note at time or over a period of months and years.
You get a good sense of how that might be when you talk to David Jennings about the many kinds of collaboration he’s been involved in. When he talks about other artists and how he works with them —from playing live music and leading a jazz band to teaching composition and composing for dance, he hits all the same notes. We asked him about a lot of things as we were getting ready to see L-Theory Collective perform Dancing As Life at Chicago’s Ravenswood Loft on April 3rd and 4th, 2020. That concert never took place of course, as the entire world closed down in the face of the Coronavirus. But instead of waiting until the concert can be rescheduled, we thought we’d like to share this with you now. Here’s what David told us:
It was magical, and that is where the discovery of the possibilities of this unique art form happened.
Johnny Nevin: You have a wide-ranging experience set in music that includes much of how music is made — you’re a multi-instrumental performer, you’ve done hundreds of arrangements, you’re a composer, a band-leader and a teacher. But how was it that you first discovered the world of choreography and concert dance — how did that discovery happen? And what has the process of that discovery been like for you as a musician?
David Jennings: The first experiencing of concert dance was in the ballet sections of musicals. When I was in high school and college I played drums for a bunch of musicals in community theaters. It was very exciting because of how the drums had to be locked in with the dance movements on stage. When the singing stopped and there was just dancing, I was amazed at the energy created by the dancers interpreting the music. It left an impression on me in a powerful way.
I lived in Los Angeles throughout the 1990s, and I began working on my masters in composition at the University of Redlands. I did a graduate recital of music that I composed for a jazz quintet. For one of the pieces I asked a couple of female dance students if they would do an improvised dance on stage with us. It was magical, and that is where the discovery of the possibilities of this unique art form happened.
Another impactful moment happened while teaching at the College of Lake County. Clc has a wonderful dance program and one of the teachers, Theresa Crews, asked me if I would play drums for her modern dance class. She wanted the students to spend some time on improvising movements. This sparked the idea of writing a ballet, which I did in 2008, entitled My Sense Of Everything.
I want them to be open, free and creative, allowing them to express their gift. The first true collaboration was with the great Joel Hall on My Sense Of Everything. Joel, with his beautiful spirit, embodied all of that.
Johnny: What is it like to collaborate with dancers — with a choreographer but also with the performers — compared to collaborating with other musicians? It’s certainly a very different process, especially compared to the kinds of collaborations that happen in the world of jazz music that you know so well.
David: The collaboration process has been one of the most enjoyable parts. To be around choreographers and observe how they listen and hear music is so refreshing, and educating. We have to learn how to communicate to each other on a level of obviously understanding, and most important trust. With the works I have written for dance, the music was done first and then given to the choreographers. So there is the trust I have in them to have the creative freedom to do what he or she wants in interpreting the music. I can feel their energy with great intensity when they know they have my trust. I want them to be open, free and creative, allowing them to express their gift. The first true collaboration was with the great Joel Hall on My Sense Of Everything. Joel, with his beautiful spirit, embodied all of that.
When you have a group of musicians rehearsing with dancers in the same room, the energy is incredible. There is this admiration and respect for each other’s art form that comes out in this type of environment. Everybody just inspires each other. Personally as the composer, there are no words to describe the feeling of watching your work come to life through the vision of the choreographer, and ultimately the movements of the dancers. Breath taking, to say the least!
I have composed a lot of music for musicians, specifically my own groups, throughout the years. The biggest part of that process is writing the music, then there is rehearsing, performing, and recording. I found working with a choreographer, there is the process of music composition, and then the process of the dance composition! Wow, love it!
Without any of these people, the show does not exist. Everybody does depend on each other to make it work, and the environment of oneness created is wonderful.
Johnny: One of the things about concert dance that’s different from most purely musical productions is the number of other creative designs that contribute to concert dance. There’s lighting, costumes, often stage design, and in some cases a dramaturge. The whole process of tech rehearsals and dress rehearsals is a completely different world as well. How does all of that illuminate your own creative process when you work in the world of concert dance?
David: Yes, and they are all truly artists, encompassing all these different perspectives of creativity. That world is so different from just the music world, as you said. It is a team effort to make the production happen. The tech rehearsals can be a bit of a grind, especially when figuring such things out like the lighting cues, but I love every moment of it. You have the choreography, the costumes, the set designs, and to illuminate it all is the lighting. The music is now born into its wholeness.
The thing that stands out is how hard all these people work, it is inspiring. They have studied and worked their crafts for years, and the passion for the production just flows. Can’t forget about the stage hands who help out in anyway, from moving equipment to taping things down. Without any of these people, the show does not exist. Everybody does depend on each other to make it work, and the environment of oneness created is wonderful.
… when composing music, there is no identity of a me. There are no words that describes what happens, it just is happening.
Johnny: Almost everybody listens to music, but very few people have much of an idea of how it’s actually composed, probably because that can be so different from one composer to another. What is it like for you — in terms of process but even more in terms of personal experience — when you compose?
David: Composition has always seemed natural. This is driven from the love I have for composing music. The energy of love is like no other, can’t be defined, but we just know it. Sure, there are all the technical aspects that I have studied including theory, harmony, form, melody, rhythm, etc. I try to compose at least an hour a day, so there is lots of discipline, same as practicing your instrument. I guess each composition starts for me with a spark that could be a chord progression, a melody, a groove, or a certain instrumentation. When writing music for dance, I sometimes have a vision in my head at that moment of what it may look like.
The truth of composing for me, though, has been the disappearance of what may be perceived as me. When in the waking state, I play my different roles, like we all do, and it is part of being human, that can be perceived as good and bad. However when composing music, there is no identity of a me. There are no words that describes what happens, it just is happening. If I try to label it, it just is no longer it. When I listen to music that I have written, I don’t really have much of a memory of the actual composing part. That maybe is why there is such love for composing. It is a connection to the oneness, the disappearance of the illusion of duality. I am so grateful.
I try to create an environment where the student can have the freedom to open up and express themselves. They learn the techniques for composing and put those into practice, but the emphasis is on writing music from the heart.
Johnny: Besides being an accomplished musician, you’re also very much admired as a teacher. With so much of your own creative energy dedicated to the complex art of teaching, do you think that plays a role in your musical creativity? In particular, aside from all of the musical aspects of working on Dancing As Life with Lamaiya Lancaster and L-Theory Collective, how has this project reflected your own life experiences as a teacher?
David: Yes, it is all tied in together, teaching music is another way to express creativity. I have been teaching at the College Of Lake County for a long time now and that experience has been invaluable. I have been fortunate enough to teach Music Theory and Composition, and it’s amazing how we never stop learning as teachers, which is the best part. With the composition class, I try to create an environment where the student can have the freedom to open up and express themselves. They learn the techniques for composing and put those into practice, but the emphasis is on writing music from the heart. It has to vibrate on a level of truth within them in order to connect with a listener. It has been a fascinating process with the evolution of this class.
With the theory classes, I try to get the students to think like a composer, to put their mind in the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Debussy, and Stravinsky. We go on an incredible journey together through the history of western music from a theoretical perspective and it is so enjoyable. What is ultimately discovered is the passion of these amazing composers for life driven by the energy of love. When the students are really able to feel this, it is beautiful.
They are all amazing, tireless, passionate, and creative artists. Lamaiya, is so special, just fearless in her way of expression. I simply love collaborating with her and so look forward to our future works.
The title Dancing As Life reflects that every aspect of life is a dance. The teacher to student is a dance, lover to lover is a dance, friends are always dancing, going to the grocery store is a dance! There is always a dance going on. Hard to express what it has been like to work with Lamaiya and her dancers. They are all amazing, tireless, passionate, and creative artists. Lamaiya, is so special, just fearless in her way of expression. I simply love collaborating with her and so look forward to our future works.
I have been so lucky to have countless amazing experiences in teaching. One that stands out was in the spring semester of 2018. I teach one of the jazz combos, and was fortunate to be asked to take the combo to China in May 2018 and perform concerts throughout different cities. This combo consisted of four amazing students; Samantha Gallagher, Elias Olson, Dylan Barnes, and Phil MacNaughton. We rehearsed throughout the semester working up an hour set of jazz tunes. As part of the class, the kids had to read the Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu, which is of Chinese origin. It is a timeless book of poetic wisdom, but even these words seem so small in description. I have read it over and over for a very long time, since I was their age. Part of the class would be spent on discussing a reading out of the book. By the end of the semester, they each had to choose their favorite reading and read it as part of the performance program. I can’t say enough about these students, how open-minded they were with all of it. It was beautiful on so many levels, including with making a connection to the Chinese culture. Now that was quite a dance…
L-Theory Collective will present Dancing As Life with choreography by Lamaiya Lancaster and an original score by David Jennings as soon as we can all start going to dance concerts again, and until then, we hope all of you will be safe and well. You can hear much more of David Jennings’ music at davidjosephjennings.bandcamp.com, and you can learn more about David at DavidJenningsMusic.com. You can learn more about Lamaiya Lancaster and L-Theory Collective at the L-Theory Collective.