Taking on Tchaikovsky

The composer’s famous <em>Piano Trio</em> sets the stage for American Contemporary Ballet this weekend

The classics never really go out of style. In a first for American Contemporary Ballet, artistic director Lincoln Jones has choreographed an evening-length ballet, inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio. Beginning Friday night through Sunday afternoon at ACB DanceSpace on Wilshire Boulevard, the company’s dancers will perform to the waltzes, mazurkas, and other melodies in the late-19th-century work. (Live chamber music will accompany the dancers, with live jazz and a reception with the dancers and musicians afterward.) During the past year, the group consistently sold out its Dance+Design and Music+Dance:LA series, in association with the Da Camera Society, which featured short vignettes celebrating the artistry of George Balanchine and Fred Astaire. We spoke with Jones, and associate director/dancer Theresa Farrell, about this weekend’s change of pace.

Lincoln, please describe the ballet, and why did you decide to present an evening-length ballet for the first time?
Lincoln Jones: The audience will see a new ballet in the tradition of Marius Petipa (the choreographer of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) and 20th-century choreographer George Balanchine. This means the girls are on pointe and the piece is very much based on the period of ballet that is often referred to as ‘classical.’ There are two men and nine women in the piece. The danced portion of the music is 30 minutes long (following an 18½-minute movement of music). The tempo and mood vary widely because the music is structured as 12 variations on a theme. Some of those variations are slow and songlike; some are very upbeat. Some are in a minor key, some major.

There were a number of factors in choosing to do a single evening-length piece, but one of them is that we finally can do one, which is exciting. When we started, we had seven dancers, and there was no way we could have done something like this. But with 11, two of whom are men, we have a whole new world of possibility.

How does Tchaikovsky’s composition—combining piano, violin, and cello—inspire you?
LJ: There are many pieces of Tchaikovsky’s music that are very moving to me, and this is one of them. He is a powerful melodist, and there are some gorgeous melodies in this score. Also, he knew how to write great dance rhythms. That’s a winning combination for a ballet, and of course he is probably the most famous ballet composer in history. The structure of the piece is very interesting for ballet because it is a 30-minute-long Theme and Variations, and each variation on the theme has its own particular character, which is a fun premise for a ballet. Two of my biggest choreographic influences are Petipa and Balanchine, and they both choreographed extensively to Tchaikovsky, so it is a great learning experience to work with his music and investigate the techniques those choreographers used.

What is your artistic process like as a choreographer?
LJ: I begin by listening to the music, which usually brings a flow of ideas. These might be broad, like structural ideas, or as detailed as particular steps. Then I will study the score and its architecture. This plays a major part in shaping the dance. A score can shape a dance perhaps even more than a script shapes a film, because you can’t alter it.

Then I go about figuring out the broader aspects of the organization of the dance—transition points, patterns, etc. and how they will fit with the music. If I were writing, this might be the outline. Then I will take the smaller pieces, like individual variations (solo dances), and start filling in detail—the character of the steps, the movement vocabulary I want to use. I usually reserve the final step of choreographing the actual phrases until I am with the dancers. It usually helps to see it on their bodies, as opposed to just doing it in my head (or with my own body), especially when I am dealing with more than one dancer.

Theresa, what is your role in this ballet, and were there any challenges for you or favorite parts?
Theresa Farrell: I primarily dance with the ensemble, and we dance a lot. This piece demands clean, classical technique and great stamina from the dancers. Keeping my energy up throughout long combinations of jumps in the finale is a challenge for me. I do have a favorite moment in the ballet: There is a point in the finale when all the women move in unison for the first time. It is just a slow walk on the beat, but it produces a strong emotional response in me.

What is your artistic process like as a dancer, in terms of paying attention to Tchaikovsky’s notes?
TF: The Piano Trio inspires me—there is such range in this work, and depth. The more I listen to the music, the more I love it. To me this piece conveys the joy of life, with the reminder that life does not last forever. Lincoln’s ballets are very musically precise, so I am very focused on it during the first rehearsals. By the time we are performing the ballet, it is automatic, but it is always running in the back of my head.

ACB’s performance schedule is rigorous, with back-to-back performances each day for three days. How do you do two shows, just two hours apart, plus change out of costume and greet audience members at a reception in between the shows?
TF: It’s not easy. I like meeting the audience in between the shows. It is very rewarding. But it means we really don’t have downtime between the performances. I wouldn’t give it up, though. Getting to perform this much back-to-back really allows us to develop as dancers.

The morning of a performance, I try to eat a big breakfast: eggs, toast, and a smoothie with protein. Then throughout the day I nibble on a chicken sandwich and eat a lot of fruit and granola bars. Red Bull comes in handy from time to time. To catch my breath, I usually just take a moment alone in the corner of the studio to roll out my muscles, get into costume, and review my steps.