Introduction to the Dance-Music Collaborations expert meeting, November Music 2018

It is stating the obvious to claim that music and dance are closely related. They share time-based form and form as a result of movement. In dance, movements are articulated through the actions and presence of bodies in physical space. In music, movements are of an auditory and metaphorical nature. A melody is a sounding gesture whose movement we feel when we hear the melody going from one position in pitch space to another. Something comparable happens when we hear a regular pulse and start synchronising with it, which implies that we start predicting the next beat in the pulse and prepare our bodies to act or dance on or against this beat.

The feeling of meaningful movement in dance and music can often be attributed to a feeling of intentionality, of movement which is not only happening in the audible or visible outside world but relies on the activation of listeners and spectators. Music and dance trigger intentions in our bodies, even without us consciously noticing it. We are moved by movement, not merely in a physical way but also emotionally.  Some scientists argue that, from an evolutionary perspective, the ability to attune our inner and outer movements and emotions through dance and music has had a vital survival function for the human species.

The separation of music and dance as autonomous art forms is a typically Western phenomenon. Many African and Asian cultures don’t have separate words for music and dance. In commercial music, most musicians almost always dance, or at least move in certain ways when they perform. In the rare cases that the pop musician remains immobile, it is the camera or the background or lighting that starts moving and flashing to the pulsation of the rhythm.

Nevertheless, the worlds of classical music and contemporary music and the worlds of ballet and contemporary dance live separate lives. They each have their own educational systems and infrastructure, rely on different sources of funding and, most of all, they seem to have developed quite distinctive models of creation and production.

Here, at festivals like these, a composer gets a commission and delivers a score (hopefully a few days before the premiere) that is rehearsed two or three times. In contrast, the choreographer will probably have a residency of at least a few weeks to produce a new piece with an ensemble.

Are composers and musicians more efficient than choreographers and dancers, or do they have different expectations of what it means to create something new? I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to this question, but I do believe that different cultures of production exist with different possibilities for the transmission of musical or choreographic ideas.

Let me clarify by means of a historical example, namely that exceptional event that lies at the start of both modern music and dance history at the beginning of twentieth century: Le Sacre du Printemps, the ballet which was the result of a famous collaboration between a composer, Igor Stravinsky, and a choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky.

This ballet, premiered in 1913, has been acclaimed as a ground-breaking work, not because of a revolutionary unity of dance and music, but because of its innovations in music and dance separately. The first thing that comes to mind when the music of Le Sacre is mentioned is probably concrete musical memories: a bassoon playing in a very high register or the catchy, irregular rhythms that were quite unusual in Stravinsky’s days. The dance lover who is acquainted with history is probably reminded of more general characteristics: the dismantling of romantic ideals of 19th-century ballet, such as effortless, gracious movement. Nijinsky’s choreography introduced gravity, visible effort and daily life movements such as walking, running, stamping feet. Aspects that are now an integral part of contemporary dance vocabulary.

However, there is a good chance that it will not be Nijinsky’s choreography, but much more recent ones that come to the mind of the dance lover, such as the version of Pina Bausch in 1975. Indeed, the difference between the choreography and the music of Le Sacre is that the original music is directly accessible through the music score and numerous recordings, whereas Nijinsky’s original choreography has been lost. In fact, Nijinsky’s choreography was performed only eight times. We have no score, only testimonies, some notes, reviews and interviews. We had to wait until 1957 for a new version by Mary Wigman, but, strikingly enough, Wigman’s work had no fixed score either and has since vanished. Only a few years ago, a reconstruction of her choreography was made, based on extensive historical research.

What can we learn from this? The musical score of Le Sacre ‘fixed’ the music from the start, so that it has been able to live its own life as an independent symphonic piece since 1913, whereas all of the many new versions of the choreography of Le Sacre have been remakes. Although this is an extreme example, it may indicate a difference between a culture of reproduction, which is typical for classical music, and a culture of the remake, which is more familiar to dance. Both cultures are tied to different modes of transmission of ideas, concepts and intentions. The remake is more akin to a ‘making of’ and, especially in contemporary dance, seems to rely much more on interactions between people, and thus on memory that is in a way in between these people. With the consequence that if the dancers involved disappear, a lot of the memory is gone too.

Both music and dance are considered fleeting, ephemeral art forms, but classical music may claim to have the more successful notation system. Or at least a more widespread one than the notation systems we know from dance (such as Laban or Benesh notation). Most importantly, this efficiency does not only depend on the notation itself but on its connection with an all-encompassing production model of standardised instruments and a system of education around it. Composers don’t need to put too much information in a score. Within certain limits of a musical style, the conventions of notation guarantee that any classically trained musician can perform your score in more or less a predictable way (of course the situation with improvising musicians is entirely different).

Although we have very different means of documenting a creation process and transmitting ideas today, this different culture of transmission is still felt in the expectations we have towards composers and choreographers in a collaboration process. The more stable character of a musical score, and perhaps even a soundscape, makes the composer the more evident candidate to hand in her work first, to give the choreography something to rely upon. This can, of course, lead to a back-and-forth movement, with the music being sent back to the composition table to be adapted to the needs of the dancer. In cases where the music is not meant to be synchronised with the dance, and where, for instance, a soundscape delivers a context or even a kind of interpretation of an existing choreography, the roles might be reversed. Nonetheless, in general, it seems to be easier to dance to the music than the other way round.

Whoever comes first, the essence of the common production model in dance-music collaborations is an alternation of tasks in the creation process, with one artist creating on top of someone else’s work. This model is not without its advantages. After all, an interdisciplinary creation process where all disciplines have to start from scratch and be in a constant dialogue is very time-consuming and needs a lot of negotiation. That doesn’t mean that other collaboration models aren’t possible. We have the example of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, whose collaboration was based on the principle that the two disciplines don’t need to adjust to each other at all. Their coming together in a shared time and space of performance was all there was (fully allowing the unexpected to happen). However, this points again to a separation, a consciousness that music and dance have their own concerns and perspectives.

What other models do we have between or beyond the model of alternating tasks, or parallel work without too much interaction until the performance itself? The most familiar alternative is probably the multidisciplinary collective. Here we speak no longer of collaboration between disciplines in the strict sense, because dancers and musicians are members of the same group of people creating not one but a series of works, often developing their own unique language and creative methodology as a group.

Another development worth pointing out is that disciplines have become more interdisciplinary from the inside out. There is, for instance, the rediscovery of choreography in the music performance itself. A good example is the staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s music by Xavier Leroy ten years ago, in a choreography where Leroy ‘unveiled’ the action of musicians as a kind of choreography in itself, an approach which some of today’s composers (such as Simon Steen-Andersen or Michael Beil) exploit in more explicit ways. On the other side, it is no longer an exception to hear dancers singing or making music, or having their movements translated into sound by means of new technologies.

Along with a renewed interest in each other’s disciplines, we notice a renewed consciousness today that any discipline already has a multidisciplinary or intermedial potential in itself. There is no such thing as pure music or pure dance. Any movement makes sound and any sound in the acoustic world is the result of an action. Although this should not be understood as mere interchangeability, it offers opportunities to collaborate, to relate the spatial presence of dancers and musicians, to integrate musicians into choreography, or to sonorize the sounds of dancers into music. Most of all, it is a thought which resonates and reconnects with the primary bond between music and dance, and points to their shared intentionality of movement.

Does this reconnection ask for more hybrid practices in contemporary music and dance? Do we need a new type of artist who specialises not just in one discipline, but to a greater or lesser extent in a combination and interaction of disciplines and media? And most of all: what is needed to support this hybridity, taking into account that the efficiency of the traditional dance-music production model is challenged when the boundaries of disciplines are blurred, and divisions of tasks have to be renegotiated?