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How do the two art forms come together? What motivates choreographers when selecting music and composers when writing for ballet? In her article, our London-based publishing colleague Emma Kerr, who is an experienced dance enthusiast, provides some personal insights.

I started working for Boosey & Hawkes in London in 1992, two months after graduating from studying music at university. I made the tea, answered the phone and, as hilarious as it may now seem to the Spotify generation, copied cassettes so people could listen to music. I was as green as a dollar bill, as my new US colleagues might well have said (and probably did), but wide-eyed at suddenly being in regular contact with composers who had, while studying, gained heroic status in my mind. I nervously put Steve Reich’s call through to my boss on my first day and John Adams visited not long after. The first concert I went to that month with my new colleagues was the world premiere of James MacMillan’s subsequently legendary percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Later that year, Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3 hit the charts, and I found myself still more at the epicentre of a rapidly evolving compositional world.

Over the next few years new composers flocked to work with our team; we were a close-knit and passionate band of evangelists who knew, rather than believed, that contemporary classical music was steadily re-emerging into the mainstream from the more constrained post-war modernist period. We printed endless sets of parts to keep up with demand, talked to orchestra administrators and conductors who were becoming newly engaged with contemporary work, and the CD boom was on: record companies were, after a long gap, starting to sign exclusive deals with composers again.

There was a brilliantly talented group of young choreographers emerging in the ‘90s too. They were intensely curious about composers and new music. Nothing new for a choreographer of course, and contemporary dance and ballet had continued to embrace the new in previous years in a way that the classical mainstream had failed to do. But the ties between the two artforms had by that time to some degree been frayed. Music by certain composers such as Steve Reich was popular with choreographers, but the close collaborations that for example Stravinsky and Balanchine or Bernstein and Robbins had enjoyed were for the most part not ongoing. The long association between John Cage and Merce Cunningham had ended with Cage’s death that year and William Forsythe and Thom Willems stood out as a rare modern example of the long-term creative collaboration between choreographer and composer.

By the early-mid ‘90s, the re-emergence of contemporary classical music into the classical mainstream as referenced above – and most particularly the appearance of new recordings of contemporary works - was starting to lead to a new inspiration for choreographers. We were receiving increasing numbers of permission requests and after experiencing a number of performances I became excited about the possibilities that were developing. The British novelist Barbara Pym famously talked about “the kind of immortality most authors would want; to feel that their work would be immediately recognisable as having been written by them, and by nobody else”. This type of individuality is of course precisely what composers crave too, but it is subverted in dance and ballet. If the work is to be successful, the choreographer must inevitably impose new rhythms, new structures, new meanings on a piece of music, the dance and music together occupying a third creative space. The ballet is more than the sum of its individual parts. What a challenge and what a fascination for a composer to become involved in this endeavour, whether a choreographer uses an existing work or the ballet is a result of a collaboration between the two artists.

It became a challenge and fascination for me too, as I began to try to help choreographers find music for their next project. Across the decade I became a more than regular attender at Sadlers Wells, the Royal Ballet and Southbank Centre performances, as I tried to understand the artform better, and in the process absorb knowledge of the styles of different dance makers. Richard Alston, Michael Clark and Siobhan Davies were fixtures on the London scene and William Forsythe, Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris toured to the UK. Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, Nacho Duato, Johan Inger and others were creating astonishingly beautiful work at Nederlands Dans Theater. And I found that there was a new emerging generation of choreographers hungry for music: William Tuckett, Cathy Marston, Alistair Marriott, Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon were making waves and always on the lookout for music. In that age of the CD, I sent discs, invited choreographers to listen together, offered personalised help. Ashley Page picked up John Adams’s piece Fearful Symmetries during a visit to the office and the ballet became a big hit of the time for The Royal Ballet, in the UK and on tour.

Sometimes I simply sent a choreographer CDs and without any contact the music was suddenly used. Nacho Duato’s Karl Jenkins ballet White Darkness has been performed well over 100 times since I first sent the CD in the late ‘90s. Jean-Christophe Maillot’s immensely successful ballet to John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries was another “no-contact” example from the ‘90s. Jiri Kylian made a new ballet to Michael Torke’s music. But personal connections are the most powerful.

I was lucky enough to see Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia at the Edinburgh Festival in 2001 and to meet him briefly there. I was certainly not alone in thinking the ballet was blisteringly good and I handed him a bundle of CDs, hardly daring to hope he might find inspiration there. But he did – James MacMillan’s piece Tryst was among them, and his beautiful ballet (starring Darcey Bussell at her peak) was premiered by The Royal Ballet in 2002 and has toured the world since. I met Wayne McGregor around the same time and his first Steve Reich ballet, PreSentient (to Reich’s Triple Quartet), premiered in 2003. Cathy Marston’s Facing Viv using John Adams’s music also appeared at that time and a composer to be announced (!) will soon be working on an exciting full-evening ballet with Cathy. The continuation of the exchange of music and ideas with these key figures has been among the most important components of our work at Boosey & Hawkes and has resulted in many new ballets.

The opportunities for the commission of new ballet scores are rarer than they should be. John Neumeier’s long and fruitful creative relationship with Lera Auerbach is exemplary; a space for each to express themselves and to between them find an art that transcends the individual. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score for Wayne McGregor’s 2011 Undance also stands out for me as not only a fascinating collusion of music and dance, but also with the other members of the creative team including visual artist Mark Wallinger, with whom Turnage has gone on to collaborate on other projects.

One of the interesting choices for choreographers of the time, and which remains so, is whether to use classical music or pop music for a choreography. The immediacy of a pop score is a big temptation but the risk of the work eventually ‘dating’ is clear. Using classical music might not perhaps create the same waves initially, but the work surely stands a better chance of longevity. An interesting development in recent times has been the crossover of some figures from the pop world into orchestral composition, sometimes with dance involved. Thomas Bangalter (of Daft Punk) composed a full-evening orchestral ballet score for Angelin Preljocaj a couple of years ago and the ballet is still touring the world. We were also recently honoured to publish Joan Armatrading’s first symphony. Whatever the music and background of its composer, helping choreographers find inspiration in existing works has over the years been an intense and sometimes emotional process. So much rides on the right score finding its way to the right choreographer.

As the publisher of Prokofieff, Bernstein and Stravinsky, Boosey & Hawkes has certainly never been a stranger to requests to use music for ballet. From my arrival at the company in 1992, I remember the team balancing requests for long-existing and loved choreographies such as the Balanchine Stravinsky ballets and the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet, alongside a gradual trend across the 1990s toward new choreographies of these classic ballet scores of the 20th century, previously hallowed ground but now revisited by some of the choreographic titans of our new age. I had been literally in awe of Pina Bausch’s 1975-6 The Rite of Spring which in the early ‘90s I had only seen on video, but, one or two others aside, this seemed to me to be fairly isolated as an exceptional example of reinterpretation of this classic ballet score. There was a sense that the original work was so complete in and of itself that to touch it was to invite disaster. Somehow around the time I started working at Boosey & Hawkes the reputation of Bausch’s version was reaching further into the culture and her astonishing achievement finally blazed a trail for the choreographers of the ‘90s. We watched agog as Michael Clark subverted the idea of the sacrosanct masterpiece, and so many ballets followed that I was certainly unable to see them all. From those I did see, it almost feels wrong to single any out, but I found particular brilliance in versions as diverse as Paul Taylor and John Neumeier, and as recently as the current decade new choreographies by Mats Ek and Wayne McGregor are personal favourites. The forensic reconstruction of the original 1913 Nijinsky choreography by Millicent Hodson only added to the febrile atmosphere in which over 150 new choreographies flourished. Matthew Bourne’s 1995 choreography of Swan Lake took the world by storm and must in no small part be responsible for this general new sense of freedom to choreograph the classics felt by choreographers in the ‘90s. His subsequent choreography of Prokofieff’s Cinderella remains evergreen through many revivals and we were honoured to work with him a number of times after that, most notably on his The Car Man choreography of Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite.

I cannot conclude except to say that I am delighted that there is no conclusion in sight. Fashions may come and go but the interface between music and dance remains one of the most fascinating aspects of the creative arts of our time: elusive, joyful, profound. In the words of George Balanchine, “Music must be seen, and dance must be heard”.

Emma Kerr, 2024

Emma Kerr is Vice President, Promotion at the London office of Boosey & Hawkes, where she oversees the careers of a number of leading contemporary composers. She is also Trustee of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London, and a board member of the International Artist Managers' Association IAMA.

Emma Kerr's text also appeared in German translation in issue 1/2024 of Boosey & Hawkes | Sikorski DAS MAGAZIN.

Dance photo: Jean-Christophe Maillot's ballet Vers un Pays sage choreographed to John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (© Wiener Staatsballett / Michael Pöhn, 2013); Photo Emma Kerr: Bill Wyatt

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