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Creating New Works, Minute by Minute, in ChoreoComp

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Interdivisional collaboration, which sometimes seems like the grail at Juilliard, is a way of life for 12 dance and composition students each fall. They’re the participants in what’s fondly referred to as ChoreoComp, the annual presentation of six original dances by third-year choreographers set to original music by student composers. On November 22 and 23, as the culmination of a semester-long course (whose official name is the Choreographers and Composers Workshop), the participants will present the results of their work to each other and the public. Dance faculty member Janis Brenner is one of the three teachers of the class along with fellow dance faculty member Jerome Begin and Graduate Studies and ear training faculty member Daniel Ott. In the spring the three of them and their departments select the choreographers and composers, and the process begins. Recently Brenner gave The Journal her perspective on how it all comes together.

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ChoreoComp lets the six choreographers and six composers see how it works in the real world when dance companies commission new works and new scores. In the spring, after we select the participants, we invite the composers to bring in selections of their music and the choreographers to bring videos of their work—and then they choose who they’ll work with. 

Having had a few opportunities to commission new scores myself, I can say that the ChoreoComp process does run parallel with what really happens in the professional world. They start from scratch: As the choreographer comes up with movement material, the composers are coming in and watching the dancers work and discussing the ideas and atmosphere they’re going for. The composer is really contributing to that process and that’s a rare thing. 

It’s very exciting to have that collaboration going on, but it can also be highly fraught and sometimes stressful. There are some moments where the pairings feel that they’re working on the same wavelength toward the same creation and have moments of absolute joy and excitement. There is also usually a period of “uh-oh” somewhere along the way, where one part of the pairing feels they’re ahead of the other person. And then they may have to go back and make changes. 

They’re not making huge opuses—these are six- to nine-minute pieces. But the composer has a deadline to absolutely finish the score so the choreographer and dancers can really live inside the music for a while. And the choreographers have very set rehearsals and times to be with their dancers. The work keeps merging as the weeks go by: the composer brings another minute and the choreographer works with that minute. Each composer can choose up to four musicians to play their score and they decide on their instrumentation pretty early on so the choreographer knows something about what the sound and the mood will be like. It’s only two or three weeks before the performance that we hear the music as it will be performed. Then we have a long session with the musicians and everyone is making adjustments. The dancers really get excited at that point—it’s always inspiring to have live musicians in the room. 

Last year happened to be a really fantastic year for all six works, but they also went through moments of, “Oh my God, what have we wrought and how will we finish it?” But artists have to know that you go through that period of doubt—that most definitely happens in the professional world. Those moments of panic are teaching moments for sure. When you have one, you have to really dig in and see what you have and what could be creative ways to transcend that stuck moment. I tell them that sometimes you have to wait in the panic and then, maybe in the middle of the night, the answer will reveal itself.

The 2013 Choreographer-Composer Pairs

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