Music for Dance: Josephine Lee, Ascension, and “A Place You Can Truly Be Yourself”
One of the highlights of the Ballet Chicago Studio Company’s Platinum Anniversary Concerts this Saturday will be the World Premiere of Frank Chaves’ Ascension, and the more you learn about the piece, the more excited you are to see it. See it and hear it, because Chaves worked with composer Josephine Lee, who will perform her original composition for Ascension live with cellist Meena Cho at the Harris Theater performances.
Josephine Lee is a gifted artist in many different ways, and in many different arts. Leadership is one of them, and vision another.
Josephine Lee is a gifted artist in many different ways, and in many different arts. Leadership is one of them, and vision another. Lee is the President and Artistic Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and during the time of her leadership the Choir has been characterized by one respected accomplishment after another. Perhaps more impressive, and ultimately more important, is the impact that Lee’s vision has had on the lives of the more than four thousand young artists who participate in the Chicago Children’s Choir projects each year.
Lee is just as accomplished, and just as widely admired, for her vision in two other arts — music composition and performance. Her collaboration with Frank Chaves, their third together and their second as composer and choreographer, offers a promising opportunity to find out more from Josephine Lee about her vision, and about her art.
“Our previous collaboration, on The Good Goodbyes for River North, had been in three movements,” Lee remembers, “but for this work, Frank really wanted to feature the piano, and to have me perform the music live with the dancers on stage.”
The actual creation of the work began with Chaves and Lee going over specific musical ideas for the piece. Ascension is a duet, and an intensely personal look at Chaves’ own thoughts about life, loss and transcendence. Lee remembers that one of their starting points was at the end of the work, which Chaves already saw clearly, a final turning lift that depicts the idea of ascension. Lee played Chaves an idea she had, a D minor progression full of suggestive emotion, and Chaves immediately heard in it much of the mood and motion he wanted for the piece. “As I was playing it for him,” Lee recalls, “I could see his reaction to it. Frank is a very expressive person, and he would close his eyes, saying things like ‘Yeah, that’s it’, or ‘Yeah, that’s what it needs’.”
Although Lee is a classically trained musician, her mastery of the formalities of classical music are very much balanced by a contemporary, unspoken sense of musical collaboration. Like a jazz player, she feels where she is, and where the other artists involved are, and those very precise, if abstract perceptions constantly inform her choices, her vision, her music.
Although Lee is a classically trained musician, her mastery of the formalities of classical music are very much balanced by a contemporary, unspoken sense of musical collaboration. Like a jazz player, she feels where she is, and where the other artists involved are, and those veryprecise, if abstract perceptions constantly inform her choices, her vision, her music. It’s a picture you see very clearly when she describes her collaboration with Chaves, as if they were two musicians, or two dancers, creating together from some unquantified but shared understanding. Working together, the two began to build the textures and the structure and the piece.
As the composition for Ascension evolved, Lee talked with Chaves about adding a cello to the composition. “For me, the cello is really truly where the heart, the soul lies in the string instruments,” Lee says. She approached Meena Cho, an admired artist who Lee has known since she was a student, and the two began rehearsing the composition that audiences at the Harris Theater performances will hear, recording it several times for Chaves to work with. Then, a few weeks before the performances, they performed it live at rehearsal with Chaves and the dancers.
“What’s extraordinary about Frank is his artistry,” Lee says, going on to describe how, while she had seen that clearly in her work with Chaves for River North, with Ascension it’s even more vivid. “I had the pleasure and the privilege of watching the dancers while we were performing at rehearsal — they were so exquisite, so magical,” she says. “They’re so delicate, but yet so passionate, and there’s so much movement within everything, it just completely transcends everything I had thought.”
“For me, that’s the epitome of Ascension,” she says. “To really transcend this life, to see what’s next, and to let yourself go to a place where you can truly be yourself.”
In some ways, Ascension is an ideal setting for Lee’s own art, profound but still seeming somehow effortless, fluid but always substantial. She says that for her, composing music often includes much that is like a longing, a yearning. “There’s something of the unknown in music,” she says, “but there’s also something of the immediate and the real, of relating that longing to the current emotions of life.” Many of those emotions appear in Ascension. “We all struggle with love, we all struggle with loss, and if we all struggle with pain, we also have joy. But it’s the journey that we all have to go through.”
For Josephine Lee, there’s much that’s rich and valuable in that journey. In the music she brings to Chaves’ Ascension she explores, and expresses, the richness of that discovery, and the value of its affirmation. “For me, that’s the epitome of Ascension,” she says. “To really transcend this life, to see what’s next, and to let yourself go to a place where you can truly be yourself.”