The first day of rehearsals is always the hardest day. I usually can’t sleep the night before from being wound up so tightly, and until the first step is choreographed, there is always the small voice asking, “What if this one turns out to be really stupid?” I’ve chosen to take the bull by the horns for a few reasons. The piece we’re beginning with, Scherzo Fantastique, to the music of the same title by Josef Suk, is the one I feel I have the loosest grip on conceptually. But it’s also the only one for which I have a full cast assembled at present (I’m still looking for one man - and it hangs over my head like any undone task) so it’s what we must begin with.
I walk into studio; Frances is already in the dressing room, blastingly air-conditioned in the intense heat of this summer. We sit down and chat. I like the small talk at the beginning of rehearsal; it calms me, and helps me to get to know the dancers. Most of my choreography comes from judgments and assessments of the dancers as people, as well as how they move, so the chat is more necessary than the trivia it seems. Adriana arrives next and then Mary (Morgan won’t be here today, but will join us tomorrow.) The dancers introduce themselves to each other (they all know each other at least tangentially) and we begin.
Without a full cast I always feel tentative, not liking to set any step on the person not doing it. Worse still, I really don’t yet know what this ballet is about. There are several different aesthetic palettes possible on a continuum ranging from La Valse to The Absinthe Drinker out to Brides of Dracula. I’ll only know by throwing a few steps onto the canvas, like Jackson Pollock making a Rorschach test, and analyzing the splotches.
I’ve used this music before, and I didn’t like what I did, the music was too strange for the conventional waltz piece I made, I caught the music’s beauty and sweep but missed its oddities. The first question I needed to address was how to portray the strangeness in a way that still acknowledged what was beautiful in the music, and that these dancers could do. I had hired ballet dancers, and it’s a waste of time and resources not to respect their process. One difference between ballet-trained dancers and modern-trained dancers is that modern dancers tend to work from the inside out and ballet dancers work from the outside in. Modern dancers ask about intention and style early on in the process, ballet dancers tend not to be comfortable with those questions until all the steps have been set, then they will add coloring to them.
The music is a sumptuous waltz, so we start in the simplest place possible, with a balancé en tournant, a step commonly used in most ballets containing waltz music. We do the step as it is usually done, then vary it by altering the arms slightly so that they curve delicately in front as if imploring. This establishes a palette for the ports des bras and épaulement of the work early on. I then ask the dancers to do the waltz step at half time or slower. This answers an important question, I know that I want the ballet, like the music, to be beautiful yet strange, but strange in what way? The possibilities seemed to me to be either to be strange in behavior or in incongruities (disrupting the expected flow of movement or tempo.) The second of the two relies less upon the dancers and more upon me, so I opt to try it. Setting a dancer moving at unnaturally slow speeds against a group of dancers moving at the tempo set by the music provides the slightly disorienting effect I am looking for.
Work proceeds that day, but in fits and starts and somewhat uncomfortably. The only one I’ve worked with before is Mary, and we’re quite comfortable with each other. Adriana is very even keeled, Frances eager to get things right, but they still don’t yet know how I work, my vagueness throws Frances slightly, even though I assure her that at this preliminary stage of choreography, there is not yet a right or wrong way to execute what I’ve asked for (and generally in the vaguest terms.) Because this is not the full cast, and because I’m not yet sure what I’m doing, I am loath to set any steps as choreography, and so am building movement phrases without the music, not even playing it until more than an hour into the rehearsal. I simply throw out ideas at random for the remainder of the rehearsal. They’re not choreographed to music, but will be compared with it after, to see which are appropriate. Some, like a lengthy phrase with immense sweep, are ready for almost immediate incorporation, others, like an almost mimed phrase denoting entrapment will be thrown out.