Cooper returns for thrill of leading CSO, ballet balancing act



Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

Conductor Grant Cooper pretended to walk an invisible tightrope in the middle of Bestor Plaza, demonstrating a metaphor for the concentration required of conductor, orchestra and dancers alike in realizing a ballet. Now imagine walking that same tightrope strung 100 feet above Niagara Falls, he said.

“There can’t be any possibility of someone thinking about something else,” Cooper said, “because it could be potentially fatal.”

Cooper will lead the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the North Carolina Dance Theatre in residence at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater. It marks Cooper’s fifth time conducting ballet at Chautauqua, although he has been conducting at the Institution for more than 20 years.

“There’s an incredible sense of creativity working with the dance company,” Cooper said. “It’s inspiring, actually, because they are so in the moment, for this moment.”

The joy and challenge of conducting ballet stems from its momentous nature for Cooper. It’s an art form that can never be re-created, but to create it in the first place requires intense precision and clarity.

“Musicians have musical aural cues that they can use,” Cooper said. “A ballet company doesn’t give you that. You can hear maybe the tapping of feet behind you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything anyway.”

Without those aural cues, the ensemble loses a powerful tool in music making, which makes the conductor’s role even more vital.

“You go to the very essence of the craft of conducting,” Cooper said. “You have to have gestures that don’t express you and what you’re feeling at the moment, but rather communicate particularly in terms of tempo and pacing the interpretation that the ballet has been using to prepare.”

Ballets, though, are predetermined spectacles. When a CD is turned on in a rehearsal space, music happens, Cooper said. In concert, the music is an organic, living thing.

“I can and do respond to the dances, and they respond to me,” Cooper said. “Especially beginnings and endings, I find, are much more satisfying when there is that live collaboration.”

The music is only one of numerous aspects that must harmonize in a ballet production. Lighting, costuming and choreography also contribute to the narrative, flow and structure of a performance.

“I think that’s the challenge of whether it’s ballet, or symphonies, opera, or anything, is finding coherence,” Cooper said.

Cooper said conducting ballet differs from conducting symphony because ballet has an inherent structural narrative. A symphony must be shaped with pacing and sets of arrival points and release points, Cooper said.

“What you have to do in a ballet instead is capture — as perfectly as possible — moments,” Cooper said, “and present them almost like little self-contained gems.”

Tonight’s program will feature four of those gems, a variety such as classic ballet and Gershwin.

The concert opens with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty,” a traditional ballet but slightly recast, Cooper said.

Next on the program is a  Handel aria “Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa” from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, followed by Lalo’s “Danses Brillante” from Namouna.

“This Handel aria is perhaps one of the least likely pieces you would think of as ballet at all,” Cooper said, “and yet it has yielded to Sasha (Janes’) imagination. It’s really wonderful.”

Gershwin’s American in Paris, which closes the concert, was not written as a ballet at all, yet Cooper also insists that it yields to its own narrative.

“You can really tell there is a story being told on stage,” Cooper said.

“The idea of this program is it’s like a buffet, a smorgasbord,” he said. “As chefs, you would have said to us: ‘You’re the chef, you know your cooking. Cook something good for us.’ ”