When Dance Hits Music: Two choreographers and a string quartet creatively collide in “StringWreck”

By Emily Hite


“Charlie and I recognize that we might be inviting catastrophe in terms of trying new things with new people in new situations where there’s just very little known ground,” says choreographer Janice Garrett of her latest work with collaborative partner, choreographer Charles Moulton. The two have joined forces with San Francisco’s Del Sol String Quartet to create a new evening length work, StringWreck—an experiment in interaction that, according to Garrett and Moulton, “turns tradition on its head as dancers and musicians abandon their roles to search for new and unpredictable ways to coexist.”

Set to premiere April 10-13 at the Forum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts flexible performance space, the project—which includes four dancers from Garrett’s company, Janice Garrett & Dancers, and the four musicians with their instruments—began as a shared repertory program between the two choreographers that would be coupled with live music. It took on a novel dimension when Garrett and Moulton invited Del Sol to become creative associates with the choreographers and dancers. The anticipated outcome bills as dance-theater. Breaking spatial and functional boundaries between art forms renders neither the music nor the movement subordinate to the other. Instead, StringWreck explores those boundaries, cracks them open and scrambles the two performing arts to integrate the traditionally separate roles of these willing participants.

The choreographers express an obvious delight in the experimentation and newness that the project brings to their individual and shared creative lives. They began the project last December when the groups came together for a two-week exploratory workshop, testing what “breaking boundaries” between sound and movement could mean in practical terms. They all agree that, after these two weeks in the art lab acting simultaneously as the rats and the scientists, their work together produced mixed results and that much of what they initially made up didn’t produce the outcomes they’d imagined. That is to say, they recognized that what might have been an interesting idea prior to entering the studio wouldn’t come across as effective or engaging to an audience. Some of the experiments failed to create dramatic tension and clear relationships among the performers, according to Garrett and Moulton. Some were obvious encounters between the working habits of musicians and dancers, including the different manners in which they count—“These early experiments proved to be supremely boring,” Garrett says. “This was in part because they were ‘in jokes’ that only dancers and musicians would relate to.” According to Moulton, it became apparent early on in the process that it would be easy for dancers to harass the musicians, creating problems and physically getting in the way of their playing. It has proven more difficult for the musicians to return the favor and, as the project is now developing this spring, the collaborators are discovering more reciprocity, nuance and subtlety in the relationships being explored.

Charlton Lee, violist and founder of Del Sol, loves the challenge. He says of the Quartet’s part in the project, “We’re being choreographed as well.” Even if the group is familiar playing a particular piece of music in concert settings, “We are having to incorporate movement, which engages a very different set of brain pathways.” As for challenging the dancers, simply messing with a tempo did not read as thwarting the movers’ efforts. They’ve toyed with the idea, though: “We’d slow something down while they were hanging in the air,” Lee says, laughing. “Or we’d go too fast. But that hasn’t been pushed too far yet,” he said after the initial workshop. Following a two-month hiatus for both troupes to work on other performance engagements, the musicians and dancers reunited in March to sort through and build upon segments they had begun last year—“I could conceive something where we’ll play [a piece] and force them to move to every single note,” Lee says with mischievous delight.

Attempts at metaphorically breaking boundaries often took the form of imposing them concretely. In such instances as a dancer running away with an instrument or a musician imprisoning a dancer within impossibly complex rhythms, the artists shook up each other’s natural working environments, forcing the captives to problem-solve their way out of the binds. Among boundaries discovered is the important, though expected, factor of the impaired mobility of the string quartet due to their need to read sheet music on a stationary music stand. While the musicians can and do memorize short pieces for this performance, the complexity of what they are playing—thousands of notes in precise order—is markedly different than a dancer’s muscle memory of repertory. In one exercise, dancers tried holding the sheet music in front of the musicians so they could move while playing. “Yeah, right! While they’re dancing around! We could only see general shapes,” Lee recalls of the pages, but those shapes still helped to cue his memory.

One of the joys of the process for Garrett has been seeing one of their choreographic exercises that’s a near train wreck suddenly, after hours of observation and rehearsal, reveal a beautifully unexpected dimension of the artists’ collaboration. A particular element that was at first seen as a problem for the choreographers was the musicians’ frequent need to tune their instruments, which both surprised the dancers and pointed to a notable difference in the rehearsal processes of the two groups. Moulton explains, “In the world of dance we don’t stop and tune. You see people who try to do that and it looks fakey. Like they’re pretending to stretch onstage. Never looks good.” Garrett and Moulton decided that, rather than try to hide the tuning, they would find a way to engage with the musicians around this ritual. The choreographers brainstormed ways the dancers could help and prohibit tuning. “So the tuning becomes this kind of place, and there are dramatic possibilities in there that we wouldn’t have thought of and we would never have built,” said Moulton.

The possibility for dancers and musicians to learn from each other’s expertise has been a perk for all: dancers Tanya Bello, Kaitlyn Ebert, Dudley Flores and Nol Simonse; musicians Hannah Addario-Berry, Rick Shinozaki, Kate Stenberg and Lee. Ebert says that for one thing, “musicians have a stellar sense of rhythm. It’s impeccable. Dancers do too, but there have been a lot of times where [the musicians] have said, ‘You guys just aren’t on the rhythm.’”

Del Sol, whose members are extraordinarily trained classical musicians, perform the work of a multitude of living composers, many who create music especially for them. They are also experimental in their own work. At a performance inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art a few years back, they played music by Yoko Ono while being wrapped in gauze.

Still, they were seated while being wrapped in gauze, so it was nothing so daring as they are doing now, Lee assures. The level of risk involved in the movement experiments of StringWreck is considerable. Everyone agrees the musicians are great sports for allowing themselves and their instruments, pricing in the five- and six-figures, to be tossed around. Lee points out that the dancers face a very real risk of having an eye poked by a flying bow. The String Quartet has been quite impressed by the dancers’ flexibility with respect to inputting choreographic information. Lee mentions a day in which Shinozaki and Bello had worked on and nearly finished a duet: “And all of a sudden they came back and Charlie had thrown everything out the window and wanted to start over with the choreography.” Without a paper trail, dancers can expect to cut and paste, add and subtract material in a movement phrase with little disruption. For musicians, “That’s something that we, in general, don’t do just because our music is already laid out. It’s like laying out bricks and building it up,” Lee says, which is why starting fresh was a surprise, making the dancers’ adaptability all the more grounding.

Ebert emphasizes that dancing for two choreographers with distinct voices requires an even greater degree of moment-by-moment concentration than usual. “As a dancer, you’re always asked to be pushed beyond your comfort zone. Janice always wants more, which is the mark of a good director.” In his segments of choreography, Moulton asks what dancers can bring to the work beyond physicality, sometimes a dramatic interpretation of a series of steps. The rehearsals with dancers and musicians together are most exciting for Ebert because it is then that concepts can be nailed down and movement set. She describes how certain parameters of the musicians’ art form (such as needing to play in proximity to one another with their music stands) impact the choreography “…because they say what works for them and what doesn’t—that’s a restriction and a tremendous blessing. They’re the most willing group. We’re throwing them around and taking their instruments from them.”

In StringWreck generating conflict clarifies the roles of the performers within the world onstage, bringing to the surface points of crossover as well as differences. For Garrett, the process illuminates facets of human relationships. In building the piece, Garrett says, “There are some emotional, relational tones that we are trying to get at. The quality of the interpersonal interactions come first, and then the choreographic tasks fall out of that.” Mentally and physically demanding as the constant puzzle-solving of dancemaking may be, there is a pervasive sense of fun and wonder about the nature and newness of the teamwork being explored.

With an as-yet-unfixed order of events for the new seventy-minute work, there’s a happy amount of suspense in store for the audience as well as the artists. Garrett and Moulton courageously stuck to their premise of swimming in the unknown without a prescribed destination, and approached that sometimes-scary state with great humor. Moulton elaborates on the significance of their choice: “I do think there is a case to be made for irrational exuberance. I do think there’s a case to be made that we’re human beings, that we’re higher primates, that we really have no idea what we’re doing—politically, economically, religiously, socially, medically—and yet there’s this thing called dancing…There are things we can understand through dancing that are significant and invisible that can’t be understood through press releases and grant applications and advertisements.” Or articles like this.

StringWreck, April 10-13, 2008 at Yerba Buena Forum, visit ybca.org for more details.

Emily Hite has contributed to the Dancing Times, Stanford magazine, Stanford Lively Arts magazine, Dance Magazine, Voice of Dance.com, and Mindy Aloff’s book Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance (Oxford University Press, 2006). In 2008 she interviewed Yvonne Mounsey for the George Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive film of Prodigal Son. She joined Hope Mohr Dance in 2007.