Sufjan Stevens Joins the Ballet!

by Kasey Caminiti | August 15, 2012 12:00 am

Coming up soon is one ballet that might attract more than the usual dance crowd. Indeed, when the New York City Ballet[1] premieres Year Of The Rabbit [2]on Oct. 5 at Lincoln Center[3], the regular balletomanes will most likely be mixed with a different group of culture mavens: indie rockers. 

That’s because Year Of The Rabbit, which runs through Feb. 3, is not only the first premiere of the season from NYCB member Justin Peck, who choreographed the piece. It’s also set to a score composed by Sufjan Stevens[4], the Brooklyn-based rocker with a rabid fan base all his own. And while Stevens has worked on orchestral and highbrow performances pieces before, this will be his inaugural work with Peck and with the New York City Ballet. (Watch a trailer for the performance, below.)

DuJour caught up with Peck—who showed off selections of his work to a sold-out crowd on Sept. 23 and Sept. 24 at Works & Process[5] at the Guggenheim[6]—to find out how the collaboration came about, what sort of moves Stevens’ music inspires, and finding the balance between being a choreographer and a dancer. 


Peck and his dancers in rehearsal (photo: Paul Kolnik)

How did the idea for Year Of The Rabbit come about?

It’s been a really long process, getting to this final end result. It started three or four years ago when I first heard this particular body of music that Sufjan had worked on. At that point, I was listening to WNYC and a string quartet was playing a version of something of his called ‘Run Rabbit Run.’ The music was based on the Chinese zodiac. I thought to myself that it was interesting and it was really danceable, so I archived it.

Archived it for what?

I was really interested in choreography, so I thought I’d explore it at a later time. I ended up workshopping various choreographic ideas in relation to the music. Later, the director of New York City Ballet offered me a commission to create a new ballet for the company. I told him I wanted to see this idea through: I wanted to fully realize my concept to do a 30-minute ballet with this body of music. From there, I picked 7 of the 13 movements, and I was able to arrange them in the way I wanted them to be. I actually asked Sufjan if he’d consider orchestrating the music. What I had envisioned for the ballet was to work with a large cast—18 dancers—in a big, grand theater, so I wanted the music to stand up. 

And he agreed?

Yeah. This was about a year-and-a-half ago. Then we spent a long time working on the music, and we did several sessions with musician friends so we could hear the progress. Eventually, we got to a place where we were happy with it, so I began working on the ballet this past summer.


Sufjan Stevens (photo: Denny Renshaw)

What makes this music work as a ballet score?

I think Sufjan has a really great ability to compose danceable music, and it’s something he’s not even aware of. The first thing I noticed was that this music had great pulse and melody, and those are two important factors regarding whether music will work for dance. And he’s able to pay homage to composers of the past. You get these little hints of works by Stravinsky and Debussy and several composer influences within the work, but at the same time he’s able to maintain his own distinctive voice throughout. On a personal level, the music just speaks to me in a simplistic way and helps me to come up with choreographic ideas.

You’re a member of the New York City Ballet; will you be dancing in your own piece?

No. I’m still dancing with the Ballet, so I am trying to find the right balance between rehearsals as a dancer and rehearsals as a choreographer. It’s hard to dance in your own work, because you can’t really step back to look at it. I’m already so involved as it is, so I tried to separate myself as much as possible. But it started with a lot of experimentation on my own body, using it as a tool to explore choreography before getting into the studio with dancers.

As a dancer, you collaborate in a different way than you do as a choreographer. How has that worked for you?

This is the most collaborative project I’ve worked on. It’s been great, because I’ve been able to sit down with Sufjan and Michael Atkinson, who helped with arrangements. We were able to take this existing body of music and tailor it specifically for the ballet. So I was able to add my two cents and give suggestions about how I want the music to flow and develop it one step further. 

 

Endnotes:
  1. New York City Ballet: http://www.nycballet.com/
  2. Year Of The Rabbit : http://www.nycballet.com/Ballets/Y/New-J-Peck-Stevens.aspx
  3. Lincoln Center: http://lc.lincolncenter.org/
  4. Sufjan Stevens: http://sufjan.com/
  5. Works & Process: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/calendar-and-events/2012/09/23/new-york-city-ballet-choreography-by-justin-peck-with-music-by-sufjan-stevens/i/13117
  6. Guggenheim: http://www.guggenheim.org/

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