INSIDE: Gavin Sutherland and English National Ballet’s Giselle
… the audiences at Chicago’s Harris Theater will never see the invisible complexity of everything that Sutherland helped to bring together for them.
There are few arts as intricate as those that are meant to become invisible.
Every kind of creativity has its own dynamic, and every form of art faces its own challenges, but there are a few arts that must first succeed in all of their own creative challenges, and then disappear. The art of bringing music to dance — of score design for choreography — is one of these. The design of a score has to respect the intent of every other art in the process of making dance until it becomes part of each of them, until that respect becomes the heart of the art.
The impact of music in dance is most profound when it disappears into a larger and more engaging experience, when it is woven into the very fabric, not just of every movement, but of every idea. Then, the performance of a brilliant dance company can be as thrilling as a storm on the open sea, and as transcendent as a meditation on some quiet shore. But no matter how riveting or how sublime the experience becomes, an audience will never know which was wind and which was water, which was sun and which was sky. They will never be certain which was music and which was dance, because each is so much of a part of the other.
Gavin Sutherland is the Music Director of English National Ballet, and he’s a master of this invisible art; he knows every part of it in detail. He knows the texture of every sound in a rich classical legacy and how each can change a moment — like whether a flute or an oboe will be best for the movement it will become part of. But he also knows the textures of looped samples from a twenty-first century production platform, and he knows whether to write them into the orchestra, or trigger them electronically on top of the score he’ll conduct. He knows how a dancer moves to sound, and how to keep the sounds that come from an orchestra of musicians moving perfectly with a stage full of dancers. He knows every part in detail, and he knows how to make each of them part of all of the others.
When Gavin Sutherland conducts the Chicago Philharmonic for English National Ballet’s production of Akram Kahn’s Giselle, the audiences at Chicago’s Harris Theater will never see the invisible complexity of everything that Sutherland helped to bring together for them. But DancerMusic still wanted to learn more about all of it — about the complex choreography of collaborations that are the heart of Gavin Sutherland’s art. So we asked him if he would give us a look inside the art of bringing music to dance, and here’s what he told us:
In seeing two highly artistic people so collaboratively compatible, almost breathing as one in bringing the piece to fruition, I was thrilled to catch some of the sparks of that energy …
Johnny Nevin: In the richly complex process that led to the creation of a new score for Giselle, you were at the nexus of an intricate and delicate interaction among several artistic processes — choreography by Akram Khan, composition by Vincenzo Lamagna, orchestration by you, and ultimately, performance by an orchestra full of musicians and a stage full of dancers. Each of these processes has its own vision and its own dynamic, yet all of them come together in each moment of performance. Because you’ve conducted so many moments where an orchestra of great musicians and a stage full of great dancers perform together, perhaps you could give us some idea of how all of that experience, all of those moments of performance and rehearsal you’ve seen, influenced your own choices as you worked with Vincenzo Lamagna to orchestrate this score.
Gavin Sutherland: The description of the process as “richly complex” is extremely vivid — and absolutely true. In seeing two highly artistic people so collaboratively compatible, almost breathing as one in bringing the piece to fruition, I was thrilled to catch some of the sparks of that energy and feed it into my own process of orchestrating the score.
The sense of story, pace and attention is vital in a wordless artform, so the music must support this …
With the arrival of Vincenzo on the production, and his compositional processes, I knew that dance went to the very heart of his style of work and working. Taking the elements he provided daily during his compact writing period, grasping the emotion, the dramatic pace and the colour and texture of the sounds he used, I would faithfully transcribe (with pencil and manuscript paper) each morning. That would leave the remainder of the day to attend the dancers’ rehearsals in the studio, honing my impressions of that morning’s music and seeing it processed by Akram into choreography so perfectly and dramatically depicting every phrase, every nuance, much colour and lots of the drama. A drive home and a meal allowed me to further process, and then begin orchestrating (usually into the small hours).
The sense of story, pace and attention is vital in a wordless artform, so the music must support this alongside the choreography. In the case of the work of Akram and Vincenzo, my aim was to support the music with colours and textures that didn’t complicate the work, merely enhanced it. I believe that this has produced a real synthesis of the arts, a true gesamtkunstwerk.
… it’s not totally about following, it’s also about leading. Not just the steps, but the drama. Not just the acting, but the environment.
Johnny: English National Ballet has an exceptional understanding of the importance of music in dance, and as Music Director, you’ve had a front row seat for all of the accomplishments that this has made possible. Can you tell us more about the details of this understanding, and about your own sense of how audiences are impacted by the score that they hear when they watch a dance performance?
Gavin: At the door of the pit, every show for over twenty-seven years, I have wanted to run a mile — a thousand miles! — in the opposite direction. Not necessarily nerves, but just the enormity of the task I am about sixteen feet from initiating, controlling (to some degree) and communicating (to those behind my back as well as those in front!).
The short answer for my approach to ballet conducting is that it is again a collaboration — about 50-50 in my experience, and the sharpest skill for a conductor to hone. I am an accompanist, of soloists that make no sound (bar the odd stamp and clap, perhaps), but it’s not totally about following, it’s also about leading. Not just the steps, but the drama. Not just the acting, but the environment. So many factors to contend with, alongside making music of the highest quality (and accommodating every nuance a dancer needs, so much as lightning-quick reflexive communication allows).
… that sees, year-on-year, an evolution that could almost be said to be leading the next big trend in ballet and dance companies. It’s invigorating to be a part of that …
I am extremely humbled and proud of the Company’s own orchestra, the ENB Philharmonic — between 50 and 80 (and 104 for Rite of Spring!) of the hardest working, instinctive, loyal, talented musicians I know. A ballet orchestra has that extra task, I feel, in sounding the dramatic pace and intent throughout a production, and that means immense trust and connection with the conductor, and almost a unique sound to the ensemble. In owning the music, they support the dancers through the conduit of the rostrum.
And my reading of bodies, physiques, strengths or otherwise, can be contradicted despite weeks of rehearsals in that one unusual moment of a performance — someone just squeezed out five pirouettes rather than the four rehearsed, a balance before a final position sees a dancer really “on their legs” and one person can ensure that 60 or so people find that final position together. And you wonder why I’d run a mile before starting! But you see, it’s like that right up until the first upbeat — that exquisite moment when one first brings the entertainment to the audience, even before the curtain rises. And then, calmness reigns — well it has to, since if I’m not calm goodness knows what might happen!
Thankfully, over recent years our exceptional Artistic Director Tamara Rojo has nurtured and cultivated the style of the company in its work — based on the foundation elements of technique, dramatic intention and musicality — and that sees, year-on-year, an evolution that could almost be said to be leading the next big trend in ballet and dance companies. It’s invigorating to be a part of that …
English National Ballet presents Akram Kahn’s Giselle at Chicago’s Harris Theater in four performances: Thursday, February 28, 2019 at 7:30 pm, Friday, March 1, 2019 at 7:30 pm, Saturday, March 2, 2019 at 2: pm, and Saturday, March 2, 2019 at 7:30PM. The performances will include live music performed by Chicago Philharmonic Society under the direction of Gavin Sutherland. Run time is two hours, including a 20 minute intermission. (There will be no late seating for this performance. Once the performance begins, late arriving patrons may watch the first act from a screen in the lobby and will be seated during intermission.) Tickets are available online from the Harris Theater. For questions concerning accessible seating availability or the Harris Theater’s online ticket purchase process, please contact the Box Office at 312.334.7777 or firstname.lastname@example.org.