Cooper leads CSO in classical rep reimagined for dance



Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

Three of the four selections for Saturday night’s ballet performance with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra are not traditional ballet repertoire, which begs the question: If not expressly written for dance, what makes a piece of music appeal to choreographers and dancers?

Guest conductor Grant Cooper collaborated with North Carolina Dance Theatre Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux for the concert’s program, sending him music that might stimulate movement. When Bonnefoux was considering Haydn, Cooper guessed that the minuet sections of his symphonies — traditional dance movements — would work well. But of the five movements that Bonnefoux chose from three separate Haydn symphonies, not one was a minuet.

“I realized that the minuet is dance music, but that’s not the music that’s appealing to him in terms of the sort of dance he wants to create,” Cooper said. “Because he doesn’t want to create a minuet, he wants to create something that’s more conceptual.”

Under Cooper’s baton, the CSO will accompany NCDT at 8:15 p.m. Saturday night in the Amphitheater.

Alongside Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 Movement 1, “Maestoso,” Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and the Haydn excerpts from his Symphonies No. 4, 38, and 88, Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” is the only ballet repertoire on the program.

“It’s fantastic ballet music and a fantastic example of Tchaikovsky, too, because — as he often does — he features solo instruments in the orchestra,” Cooper said of the excerpt, the recognizable pas de deux from Act 2. “There’s a parallel musical interplay with solo voices as there is on stage with the two solo dancers.”

That interplay Tchaikovsky crafted for “Swan Lake” is not as cut-and-dry for the rest of the selections, but there is an art to reworking classical repertoire into stories with dance.

“I think the very fact that (these pieces) are not true narratives by themselves encourages the choreographers then to create — in their own minds — a sense of structure, which is based on the dance, itself,” Cooper said.

Mark Diamond’s ballet “American in Paris” is a clearer example of how a narrative can be drawn from a musical composition — in this case, Gershwin’s original piece. The title, Cooper said, gives the choreographer a clear premise.

“Even though it’s about an American in Paris, any number of things could happen to that American in Paris based on the music,” he said. “And that’s the intersection of the music with Mark’s imagination, which is so wonderful for us as audience members to see.”

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, or “Maestoso,” as Diamond named his ballet, is made of more abstract and simpler materials than the Gershwin. Cooper compared the beginning of the movement to a universe not yet coalesced but that, as the pieces progresses, somehow gains order and cohesion.

“What Beethoven shows us musicians is that the simpler you make your materials to start with, in a sense, the more elemental your connection with the audience is going to be,” he said.

As with all of Beethoven’s music, Cooper said, the Ninth Symphony’s first movement has a powerful sense of rhythm, which could be attractive to a choreographer.

“They must be driven by this music; they must be propelled and compelled by the incredible underlying structure,” he said.

Beethoven’s composition may appear simple — often using triads and even diads — but it manages to build instances of momentous occasion and release in his music, Cooper said.

“He was a master at making incredibly powerful statements from musical objects, which by themselves are stripped of adornments, of prettiness, of grace, of beauty,” he said. “They are just simply cells, musical cells.”

Haydn tended to follow sonata form in his music, which has contrasting elements that then return, Cooper said.

“It’s the contrasting elements that must appeal, because that gives the choreographer the idea of having different groups of dancers in distinction to each other,” he said. “The idea of return must appeal, because it’s possible to bring back certain elements and create — just as it does in sonata form, musically — a form in the choreography that gives us a sense of completeness and closure.”

Once Bonnefoux chose the five movements from three separate Haydn symphonies, Cooper organized the five into a logical order based on key relationship he found among them. Key relationship, he said, is difficult to explain, but easy to hear in music when it is poorly executed.

“It made sense for us to find a way to distill Haydn’s music so that the structure flowed with the same logic within the movements that Haydn built into them, and with some external logic, which I was helping to organize,” Cooper said.

Although the five movements were never necessarily meant to be performed together, he said, he believes he arranged them so that Haydn could have been satisfied. After all, of all the composers Cooper could think of, he said Haydn was very much a servant to music’s day-by-day needs.

“I can just imagine Haydn coming to Chautauqua and saying, ‘I’m just amazed that you still have use for this music that I made back in 1786,’ ” Cooper said. “I’m predicting that he’s going to be delighted when he hears this.”

In the end, what any ballet conductor wants is to give dancers the tools they need to help dance and music fuse — a combustion, he said, that is much bigger than either of them apart.

“The fact that there are live human beings doing it together, in the pit and on the stage,” Cooper said, “is one of the great marvels.”