After most dancers graduate from The School of American Ballet they have lots of "firsts": first company contract, first performance with that company, and maybe even first solo role. But 2017 SAB grad Gianna Reisen is experiencing a different kind of "first" during her inaugural year in the professional ballet world: She's making her first choreographic debut at Lincoln Center. At just 18, Gianna Reisen is the youngest person ever to create a piece for the renowned New York City Ballet (NBD!). Her new work, Composer's Holiday, set to music by Lukas Foss, will premiere at the company's fall gala on September 28th.
Reisen impressed NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins with the ballets she made for SAB's Student Choreography Workshop and The New York Choreographic Institute, prompting Martins to invite her to create a piece for the main company. And though the pressure of such a proposal would intimidate even the most seasoned choreographer, Reisen's pragmatic poise about the whole thing assures us that she's up to the task.
Great contemporary choreographers and soulful singer-songwriters have always made for a perfect match. That's why we were thrilled when we found out "SYTYCD" and "Dance Moms" choreographer Kristin McQuaid created the music video for "Light the Sky," a hit single from "America's Got Talent" winner Grace VanderWaal.
Five women in leather-soled boots sweep their feet across a sand-covered stage, accenting the music in maraca-like rhythms. With its chugs, brushes, heel drops and slides, their movement looks a lot like tap dancing, but the sound is different—scratchier and rougher. This is sand dance. The scene described is from tap dancer/choreographer Melinda Sullivan's 2012 video entry to the Capezio A.C.E. Awards, Gone. (She went on to win first place at the competition.) “Experimenting with sand dancing really changed the way I tap," Sullivan says. “It's like playing a whole new instrument." Interested in giving sand dance a try? Before turning your dance studio into a private beach, read on for the need-to-know on this sub-style.
Talk about inspiring. It seems like kind of a given that if you want to dance to music, you have to be able to hear it. But the human body is amazing, and human willpower even more so. Case in point: Macy Baez, a 15-year-old Australian hip-hop dancer who happens to be deaf. She feels the vibration of the bass through her feet when she dances and competes with her studio crew.
Check out her story, including meeting her hero Parris Goebel, getting ready for competition and her fierce solo featuring a portable SONY speaker that rocks a killer bass.
George Balanchine’s Agon is one of the hardest ballets for dancers to learn, thanks mostly to its incredibly complex score. Igor Stravinsky’s tricky phrasing and frequent tempo changes can baffle even experienced dancers. But at San Francisco Ballet, corps member Shannon Marie Rugani has no problem following Stravinsky’s music. Why? Because she plays the piano, drums, ukulele, guitar and harmonica, in addition to composing her own pieces of music.
Shannon Marie Rugani in West Side Story Suite with San Francisco Ballet (Chris Hardy, courtesy San Francisco Ballet)
You don’t have to be a virtuoso like Rugani to benefit from studying music. Reading notes, playing an instrument, familiarizing yourself with the musical canon and learning music history can change the way you interpret choreography and help you stand out from dancers who don’t have a musical background. In many ways, studying music is as important as the cross-training you do at the gym—you’re just strengthening your musical mind instead of your body.
Musicality vs. Musicianship
Everyone knows dancers should be musical, but sometimes that quality is hard to define. In his classes, Jeffrey Middleton, music instructor at the School of American Ballet, helps dancers improve their musicality by developing their musicianship. “Musicality in a dancer means having sensitivity to the rhythm, line and mood of a piece,” Middleton explains. “Musicianship is about having a good ear, learning to play an instrument and developing a knowledge of music.”
The first part of his class takes place at the piano, where students learn to count, read and try to make music. The second part is general music history—studying pieces that were written specifically for dance or used for choreography. Though his classes target ballet students, Middleton says that music lessons are beneficial for all dancers. “It’s about becoming a better listener and putting music in a particular context,” he says.
Jeffrey Middleton leads music class at the School of American Ballet (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
The Benefits of Musical Training
Studying music gives you a better idea of rhythm and phrasing. It helps you distinguish elongated notes from staccato (short and fast) notes. You’ll learn to hear when something is softer or louder and to listen to the silence between notes. “All of that gets translated into your body,” says Daisha Graf, a commercial dancer and recording artist who studied piano growing up. Musical knowledge, she says, also helps you pick up choreography faster: The more you can hear, the more easily you can associate steps with sounds.
Hearing different aspects of the music, like flowing melodies or pulsing undercurrents, allows you to shape your movements to match the score, too. “Everything has to be connected, or the people watching aren’t going to be inspired or moved,” says Leah Faircloth, a 17-year-old competition dancer at CC & Co. Dance Complex in North Carolina. Leah says that her training in piano and cello has made it easier for her to break down rhythms for dance, especially in tap routines. “I have an advantage for learning timing and dynamics,” she says. “That lets me just dive into the choreography, instead of thinking about what comes when.”
At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, founding artistic director Marcia Dale Weary notices that her most musical students play an instrument. Their exposure to classical music studies at home or at school affects the way they express themselves in the studio. “I see that they dance from their souls,” she says, “that they are able to sing the music.”
Studying on Your Own
If music classes are beyond your financial or geographic reach, there are other ways to improve your musicianship. Dale Weary suggests seeking out classical music recordings and listening to them at home or in the car. “Classical is much more complex than pop music—you have to listen to it over and over,” she says. Get familiar with the syncopated work of Scott Joplin and George Gershwin, as well as that of classical composers like Brahms, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. World music, especially polyrhythmic African music, is helpful, too. “Many styles focus on different rhythms, and you can learn from each one,” Graf says. “Go beyond what you’re used to hearing.”
Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's artistic director Marcia Dale Weary teaching class (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
Rugani recommends YouTubing music theory videos. “There are so many videos and teachers to choose from,” she says. You can even pick up a cheap keyboard and a simple theory book so that you can practice. Piano apps for tablets and smartphones can also be helpful. Feeling ambitious? If you can swing it, Middleton suggests getting a drum set. “Drums are the best thing to explore if you’re a dancer,” he says—they’re great tools when it comes to understanding rhythm and counts.
Try not to get frustrated if you don’t notice an improvement in your musicality right away. “Musical development is very slow, and sometimes you feel like nothing is happening,” says Middleton. “But over the long term, it becomes a part of your growth. Eventually, the musical side of dance will come naturally to you.”
Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music." Well, what if you couldn't hear the music? Would you dance anyways?
London-based artist and poet Sofia Mattioli asked herself this question one day while riding on a train. She had been listening to music through her headphones, and as she started getting pretty into it, a deaf child approached her. After attempting to sign, the girl opted for a note. She wrote that although she couldn't hear the music, she could almost feel it through Mattioli's movement.
Mattioli ran with this idea when English producer Jamie XX asked her to direct a music video for his song "Sleep Sound." She enlisted the help of members of the Manchester Deaf Centre to dance with her in the video. Although the participants could not hear the song, they were able to recreate it in their imaginations by responding to Mattioli's movements and the vibrations in the room.
The resulting video is both beautiful and inspiring:
On February 14, as part of New York Fashion Week, students from Parsons The New School for Design, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and the Joffrey Ballet School's Jazz and Contemporary Program came together to create Reconstruction 3.0: Life is a Journey, a night of live performances featuring original music, dance and fashion—and we're still drooling over the fabulous dancing and the oh-so-fashionable costumes (two of our favorite things!).
But that’s not all. This night was also a contest between five teams, each consisting of a Parsons fashion designer, New School composer and Joffrey Ballet School choreographer, who developed works with original music scores, choreography and costumes that were reconstructed from previous Louis Vuitton clothes and textiles.
The victorious piece, titled Chronogenesis, was choreographed by Angelica Stiskin; danced by Catie Leasca, Maria Rodriguez, Jaedon Thomson, Alex Hopp, Amy Patterson, Shay Saver, Carly Piotrowski, Kali Mikelson, Anna Simms and Michele Montana; composed by Arthur Hnatek; and costumed by Jack Burns, Kumie Asai and David Valencia. Congratulations!
What did they win? Oh, just a trip to Paris, including access to Louis Vuitton's workshop and the historic home of the Vuitton family. Oh là là!
Check out this awesome slideshow of the evening, complete with to-die-for costumes: