In conversation with Composers and Choreographers
Matthew Neenan began his dance training at the Boston Ballet School and the School of American Ballet in New York. From 1994-2007, Neenan performed with the Pennsylvania Ballet, where he danced numerous principal roles. In 2007, he was named Choreographer in Residence at the Pennsylvania Ballet. Neenan's choreography has been featured and performed by BalletX, Pennsylvania Ballet, The Washington Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Milwaukee Ballet, Juilliard Dance, Sacramento Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theatre, Indiana University, Opera Philadelphia, and most recently New York City Ballet. In 2005, Neenan co-founded BalletX in Philadephia.
Oliver Davis studied under Justin Connolly at the Royal Academy of Music, graduating in 1994. He has since composed and produced numerous albums, soundtracks, concertos, and television scores, working with all the major London orchestras.
Davis's interest in ballet has led to collaborations with choreographers including Edwaard Liang (Infinite Ocean, a commissioned score for San Francisco Ballet's 2018 Unbound Festival), Peter Walker (dance odyssey for New York City Ballet), and Erico Montes (Within the Hours for Royal Ballet).
Oliver Davis and Matthew Neenan
What lead you to Oliver Davis's composition?
Matthew Neenan: My colleague, the Promotion Manager for Dance at G. Schirmer, recommended Oliver as a possible future collaborator for a dance creation and after I listened to Oliver's albums, I was hooked.
When choosing music for a dance creation, what elements and factors of a score speak to your creativity?
MN: I love all types of music so it really depends on the mood that I am trying to convey. If the work is something more conceptual and weird , I'll just try to find just that. If the work is going to be more bold and sassy then I'll search for something that has vibrant energy and melody.
Can you describe what elements of Davis's composition triggered the desire to explore his music as a match for your choreographic voice and suitability to PNB?
MN: Since this is my first PNB commission, I really wanted to find something that would be heavily inspired by the music. I was thirsting for something bold and lush with a sense of mystery. Ollie's music has all of that and more.
Can you share some of the interaction you shared with Neenan regarding the score and his vision for the shape of the ballet?
Oliver Davis: My collaboration with Matthew was unique in that it was a hybrid of creating new works and mixing that with preexisting works. All of the preexisting works he chose were from my last album, Liberty. The new material was written based on sketches I had put forward or altering previously unreleased music. One of the sketches that Matthew chose as a starting point was a short sketch called Icarus for piano and orchestra. Matthew wanted to open his new ballet with a piece in this style so, via Skype, Matthew would describe how he wanted the sketch to develop. He would firstly picture to me the opening scenes of the ballet. This is months prior to working with the dancers so Matthew already had a clear sense of how the piece was going to work. When I started to work on this opening section I created a movement that had very uplifting and bold style, retaining the almost classical feel of the initial sketch. This will undoubtedly be an ensemble section and at this stage the choreographer often knows the exact number of dancers that will be on stage at this point. Other factors that Matthew indicated was the duration this section had to be and one key direction was that this opening section must end more subtly than it began. So I ensured that this movement has a diminuendo towards the end. This is a notable area where concert hall music and ballet (or operatic) music differ. Had I been creating the work to be performed as a concerto, for example, the ending of this movement would be completely different. Even in a non-narrative ballet, the composer has to recognize that there are still certain parameters that need to be adhered to in order for the ballet to work.
Before you commenced in the studio with the PNB dancers can you share some of the dialogue you shared with Davis regarding the score and your vision for the shape of the ballet?
MN: Once we decided on the running order of both tracks, we both knew the work would begin with very robust dancing and end more solemn. I informed him that it would be more of an ensemble feel throughout with a plethora of duets, trios and quartets. I told him my work usually unfolds best when I form a sense of community and awareness or perhaps even some ignorance between the dancers.
For previous ballets have you always spoken with the choreographer before they create and if not can you share your thoughts on the experience of seeing production for the first time as an audience member?
OD: Each ballet differs. When I worked with Peter Walker on his piece for NYCB he wanted to know more about the story behind what inspired the works that he had chosen. So I would go in to far more detail than the sleeve notes gave. We would also discuss in some detail the running order. Often the choreographer wants to know whether the order they have put your movements in will work or whether the end of one movement might jar with the beginning of the next piece which is an unrelated work. The reality is that if the choreographer sticks to one composer then the works are less likely to jar as the music will tend to have a single voice to it — especially if the choreographer picks works from the same album or era.
Before choreographing for PNB did you prepare a vocabulary as a foundation for the aesthetic of the creation or wait until you were in the studio with the dancers?
MN: I always explore vocabulary in the studio by myself with movement and musicality to help prepare but I don't really build it until I have the dancers with me. They always aid in dictating where the piece is going to finally end up.
How do you feel about different choreographic voices responses to your composition?
OD: I am continually amazed how choreographers interpret my work. They each have their own voice and style. When I first saw Edwaard Liang's interpretation of my work there was such a sense of vision to the piece. He turned a collection of my pieces into 13th Heaven, a very emotionally and driven beautiful work for Singapore Dance Theatre. Ma Cong, for Tulsa Ballet, used many of the works from my first album, Flight, to create a spectacle called Flight of Fancy, a densely complicated choreographic work that literally interpreted the spirit of the music into dance form. When working on a commissioned score, however, a completely different world of possibility opens up. The creation of The Infinite Ocean for San Francisco Ballet meant that I had intense and inspiring direction from Edwaard Liang. It's true that the ballet comes from the music and that the choreographer can be inspired by the compositions they choose, but writing for choreographers, it's me who's inspired.
Have you seen dance creations showcasing your scores and seen the production for the first time as an audience member, and if so can you share the experience?
OD: Last Summer this happened in Munich where Peter Walker had choreographed to a selection of my works for Bayerisches Staatsballett. When you sit down and the curtain opens it's as if something you created in 2D suddenly becomes 3D as the choreography adds the dimension that you, as a composer, could never have envisaged.
Do you have a personal library of scores, a wish list, that is the foundation of a concept for a production you hope to create or do you await commissions and then explore music that gels with an Artistic Director's request and even the other musical content in a program?
MN: There's quite a bit of music/composers that I haven't used yet that I am craving to explore. It's very important to me as well that each work on a repertory program has a completely different feel from the other. If I know ahead of time what the other works are, I'll do my best to try and not replicate what else we are hearing that evening.
Image: Lindsi Dec, PNB Principal Dancer © Angela Sterling, Pacific Northwest Ballet