As a choreographer, Christopher House, artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, is always looking for ways to challenge himself and his dancers.
This time around, with a new work for TDT, he’s gone in what could be considered a retro direction. For the first time in many years, he’s forgoing original sound design for a piece of extant music by Ann Southam.
There’s a point here, however. It’s a deliberate decision. Rivers is a tribute in movement, set to the eponymous music of the revered late Canadian composer, who crafted scores for many of the company’s founders.
The Globe sat down with House to talk about his choreographic process, working with a pre-composed music piece.
Of all the options, why pick Southam’s piece Rivers to work from?
In 1981, Ann gave me two cassettes. One was Glass Houses No. 5. The other was the longest movement from Rivers. I chose Glass Houses because I had a better understanding of the music. Rivers was more complex and subtle. When I decided to create a new dance to existing music, I thought of Rivers. I wanted music that was made by the composer for herself, and not a piece made for dance. All these years later, I felt I could enter into the composer’s world.
Rivers is from Southam’s minimalist period.
Yes. She started out with electronic music, and then was influenced by American minimalist/pattern composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Rivers is performed by a solo piano.
What are some of the challenges using an existing piece of music?
You have to be aware of the formal structure imposed by the composer. You may not be finished with a choreographic idea, but the music suddenly changes and you’re left in mid-thought. The composer has defined the musical landscape. The choreographer has to find what he can bring to the music so that the music and the dance can both maintain their individual integrity, yet create a strong relationship between the two. It’s really a duet between the piano and the dance.
So what kind of structure did Rivers impose on you?
It’s really a suite of dances. Rivers is composed of three series. The first is classical in structure with a medium tempo. The second is pointillist and austere, and the third is very fast. There are also different sections within each series. I’m using the one-hour suite that Ann created for pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico. The music is very slippery. The title Rivers suggests an unceasing flow, but there are a lot of surprises.
Not to mention the surprise of getting a pianist with the stature of Petrowska Quilico to perform with you.
She is such a sensitive musician. No two performances are the same. Beautiful musical events emerge and recede. She presents a really exciting challenge for the dancers to counterpoint.
What happens to dancers when there is live music?
They have to be in the present moment. They can’t relax because the music is shifting under their feet. They can’t depend on what they practised. The timing and dynamics aren’t exactly fixed. They have to listen carefully to what the music is doing, particularly for those sections that allow for structured improv.
How did you approach Southam’s music in terms of dance?
I first spent time with Christina learning about the compositional structure of the music. I then had to develop the dancers’ relationship to the music by having them improv to the score. I wanted everyone to focus on their musical imagination. Through improv I discovered the dancers’ individual responses to the music. Gradually a vocabulary began to emerge where everyone was speaking the same language. We always had the video camera running, which was a record of what went on in the studio. That became very important.
You keep mentioning improvisation.
One process was an impromptu unspooling of material. I improvised with the dancers, giving instructions of where to move and what to do in real time. This captured spontaneous movement. In looking at the videos, there might be a phrase I wanted to work with. I’d take it back to the dancers and let them improvise on variations on this theme. Other sections were more specifically choreographed where I would show them the material. The dancers are listed in the program as co-creators of the piece.
What do you want the audience to take away from Rivers?
That the performance is not separate from the choreography. That the audience sees a work that is spontaneous, energetic, risky and joyful. That they feel the sense of play. That they see the partnership between the dancers and Christina and the complexity of the music.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Rivers premieres at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre, April 25 to 28.