Re-making Chopin through Dance: The Collaborative Process of Richard Alston
In 2005, British modern dance choreographer Richard Alston made a solo to Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17, no. 4, for the dancer Martin Lawrance. Then, in 2016, Alston revived the solo for Steven Melendez. When I compared the dancers’ respective performances on film, I barely recognised them as representing the same dance. Some things looked similar; others looked different. But it was also the music that seemed to have changed, some features much more accented in the second version, while others seemed virtually erased from my attention. At one point too, there was a sudden move from pianissimo to forte, which was not in Chopin’s score. Elsewhere, on more than one occasion, there was a pause that was much longer than the one indicated in the score. Meanwhile, there was an intriguing comment from Melendez in interview: that he could sometimes perceive a big dance move as a sound: ‘a jump as a crash in the cymbals’, a symbiotic relationship between the audio and the visual.
My paper examines these two accounts of the Mazurka solo, addressing issues such as: What is the dance in this context? Is it the sum of all the performances of the dance, for there is no dance score? Who is the author, or is the dancer a kind of co-author? What kind of decisions were made, not only during the original creative process, but here, more importantly, across a history of performances, during which the performers took increasing responsibility? And for what reasons were these decisions made? What were the limits on identity, demonstrated by examples of what was made and discarded?
The sources already accessed are: the score (in several editions, including the one used by Alston’s regular pianist Jason Ridgway), numerous recordings of the Chopin Mazurka, the Chopin literature, specifically the items relating to this well-known Mazurka, films of the solo as danced by Lawrance (2) and Melendez (4), and interviews with Alston, Ridgway and Melendez. I have already drafted a more general article on Alston’s Chopin choreography, which has provoked additional questions to be addressed in further interviews with these artists.
My method extends to my other studies of Alston’s work since the 1980s, and, more recently, watching (and listening to) rehearsals and embodiment experience (sketch-learning of movement drawing from my earlier participation in Alston’s dance classes). I also use theories of genetic criticism and ontology, and various strands of cross-media theory (e.g. film music theory) that recognise the principle of interaction between sound and visual modes. The paper will be illustrated by clips, comparing the performance of both dancers, as well as my own sketching of live movement examples.
The research is useful to both practitioners and analysts of music and dance, to those involved in choreomusical studies, also to pianists for dance, and dancers. It is crucial to address the musical component within dance today in a robust manner, as one of the burgeoning new fields of interdisciplinary studies.
University of Roehampton, UK
Stephanie Jordan is Research Professor in Dance at University of Roehampton where, until 2011, she was Director of the Centre for Dance Research and of student research programmes in Dance. Her professional and academic experience in both music and dance contributes to her current research in choreomusical studies. Jordan’s publications include four books: Striding Out: Aspects of Contempo- rary and New Dance in Britain (1992), Moving Music: Dialogues with Music in 20th Century Ballet (2000), Stravinsky Dances: Re- Visions across a Century (2007), and Mark Morris: Musician-Choreogra- pher (2015). She directed two analytical documentaries, with the George Balanchine Foundation and New York City Ballet, Music Dances: Balanchine Choreographs Stravinsky (2002) and with The Royal Ballet, Ashton to Stravinsky (2004). In 2010, Jordan received the award for Outstanding Scholarly Research in Dance from the Congress on Research in Dance.