New gig for an old friend

My longtime friend, Robert Battle, was just named Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The NY Times described the company as “one of the nation’s most successful dance troupes.”  If people have only heard of one modern dance company, chances are, it’s Ailey.

I first met Robert in 1998, a year after I graduated from Juilliard.  Robert had been a dance major at Juilliard, but he graduated the year before I started.  We were introduced through a mutual friend when Robert was looking for a composer for a dance piece.  I gave him a CD of my music, and he asked me to write something — something that would feature his friend Garrick Zoeter, a phenomenal clarinet player.  Pretty quickly, I had my first piece for Robert: “Damn,” for clarinet and percussion ensemble.  I had huge stones at the time, so I met with Mary Rodgers Guettel, then chairman of Juilliard (and daughter of Broadway legend Richard Rodgers) and asked her to fund live music for the premiere.  She agreed, so my first collaboration with Robert had a live performance of a commissioned score.  (Well, “commissioned.”  My fee, after paying the musicians and renting percussion? $0.00.  Actually I think it was more like -$100 — as in, negative $100.)

Other pieces followed over the next several years.  There was “Strange Humors,” which now exists not just in its original instrumentation for string quartet and djembe, but also for sax quartet and djembe, and — the most-performed version — for concert band.  There was “Irish Ghetto,” a piece for accordion, violin, percussion, and double bass (a piece that’s no longer on the website).  There was “Mood Indigo,” commissioned by Ailey II (the Ailey junior troupe), for drum set and piano (also not on the website).  There was “Breakdown Tango” — commissioned by the Parsons Dance Company — for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano, which went on to become, in its orchestral and band transcriptions, “Redline Tango.”  There was “Rush Hour,” also commissioned by Parsons, for clarinet, string quartet, and drum set (and later orchestrated as the second movement of my Percussion Concerto).  There was “Juba” for electric string quartet and percussion, our collaboration for Ailey.  (You may catch a few snippets of “Juba” buried within “Asphalt Cocktail.”)  And finally there was “Mass,” a percussion ensemble work commissioned for the Juilliard dance and music divisions (and funded again by Mary Rodgers Guettel).

(Yes, I had a goatee.  It was 1999.  What do you expect?  And this is not my house.  I wouldn’t be caught dead with those curtains.  The Henry Moore sculpture next to me, though…)

I always had a great time collaborating with Robert.  This is a guy who choreographs with the score in hand, and gives the dancers the same metric counts that the musicians are counting.

Robert is the reason why “Juba” has percussion.  (I wanted to write the piece for strings alone, but he kind of insisted on percussion, and it was the right call.)  Robert also asked that the first movement of “Juba” be reminiscent of the slashing chords of “Rite of Spring” (thus the “power chords” that I ended up using) and he wanted the last movement to be rhythmically complex and a challenge to count.  (I’ll never forget watching a rehearsal for “Juba,” with the Ailey dancers moving their lips at incredible speed as they silently counted along with the music.  “1,2,3,4,5,1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,1,2,3,4…”)  Robert is why “Breakdown Tango” is scored the way it is, because he wanted to involve his same clarinetist friend (for whom we wrote “Damn”), who was then part of a clarinet-violin-cello-piano ensemble.  Without Robert, I never would have written “Breakdown Tango,” which became “Redline Tango,” which means without him, I’d have to get a real job.  And all of our pieces were true collaborations, although the majority of the time, it was him making the requests, not the other way around.  (What am I gonna do, step out onto the floor during the dance rehearsal, and go, “no, Robert, I need more jazz hands.  JAZZ HANDS.  Here, I’ll show you.”)

Here’s the video of  his choreography for “Strange Humors.”  If you’ve never watched the choreography for the piece, you really should.

After we collaborated on “Mass,” I moved to LA, and the collaborations ended. Following our two pieces for Ailey, Robert has since made seven more works for them. I guess they like him and his work, ’cause they just offered him one of the biggest dance jobs in the world.

Either that, or Loki — who has known Robert literally Loki’s entire life — provided a really good recommendation.

Congratulations, Robert!


david says

fascinating. composing/collaborating with dance is such a perfect bond. Thanks for sharing!

david says

oh, and those are some of the best jazz hands I've ever seen.

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