This is not the chamber music of yesteryear. It’s hard to imagine a more artfully fun-filled summer evening of collaboration than what Concert:Nova has orchestrated for its season four finale on July 6. Audiences will get to delight in an original dance performance set to live, world-class chamber music in an unexpected space: outside in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Alice Bimel Courtyard, where sculptures round out the art-filled atmosphere.
Creative collaboration lies at the heart of Concert:Nova’s mission. The progressive chamber music ensemble called upon sought-after local choreographer Heather Britt and selected dancers from Cincinnati Ballet to collaborate once again, following their lively, lighthearted interpretation of Carnival of the Animals suite last season. This time they’re creating brand-new choreography for a pair of classic scores first composed for two of pioneering modern dance legend Martha Graham’s works from the 1940s: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Samuel Barber’s Cave of the Heart.
Founding Artistic Director Ixi Chen, who’s also Second Clarinetist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, says she’s wanted to present Appalachian Spring since she first started Concert:Nova.
“It’s taken four years, but it’s happening, Chen says. “Appalachian Spring was one of the programs that helped shape what we first wanted Concert:Nova to be. When we have visual interpretation of the music, it brings a very unique perspective into play, and I think it elevates and broadens the understanding of a piece. We’re really excited to work with the dancers who are really interpreting it on a more personal level.”
Britt says she and the dancers were also excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Concert:Nova again.
“I felt like the process was really enjoyable and easy and a great experience for the Cincinnati Ballet dancers who don’t usually get the chance to try their hand at choreography; they took the project on with tons of enthusiasm.”
Cincinnati Ballet Corps de Ballet dancer Stephen Jacobsen, who’s choreographing several sections, is “a huge Copland fan,” and says he told Britt right away, “I’m on board with whatever you have going on.”
Jacobsen first discovered how much he loved choreographing while he was teaching dance to children during his teenage years.
“There’s a part of me that needs to say what I’m choreographing,” he says.
Describing sections he created for Appalachian Spring, he says, “Parts are upbeat and have a sense of theatricality to them, and I enjoy doing big group numbers where the musicality goes beyond just the sound of the music.”
And moving beyond the music and the time period of the original works is just what both groups intended.
Britt says they’ve kept the same characters and basic narrative — newlywed American pioneers, a priest and so on — but the dancers and choreographers brainstormed how they could make the 1944 piece more up to date for today’s audience.
“We as a group decided how we wanted to retell the story, so it’s been a really true collaboration,” Britt says.
“We’ve come up with an exciting new twist.”
(I’ve promised not to give away the surprise twist, but here are a couple of hints: it relates to a current hot topic in this country and to reported aspects of Copland’s personal life.)
“We hope that no matter what time period the music comes from, we can produce it in a way that makes it provocative and relevant for today, and that’s exactly what the choreographers did,” Chen says.
That’s not to discount the impact of Graham’s ahead-of-the curve influence. For reference, they all watched Graham’s Appalachian Spring on YouTube.
“For its time, it was totally quirky and unique,” Britt says. “Even for today, it’s revolutionary.”
Although Britt grew up studying Graham at SCPA, don’t expect to see Graham choreography.
“If there is Graham (technique) seen in the piece, it’ll be by accident,” Britt says, laughing. “I’m guessing there’s a lot of that (influence) in my movement vocabulary just by nature, but we didn’t have the intention going in that we were gonna try and use some of the Graham (choreography). We thought that we’d use our own personal influences. We all have very different styles of movement, but they really complement each other in this piece.”
Chen says she was impressed by how much emotion they put into the choreography.
“The turn of a head, the shift of weight, is so powerful,” Chen says. “I think it’s gonna be pretty special. Stephen Jacobsen wanted this really to be something that people thought about — not just putting motion to music.”
Graham would surely have been proud.
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