Apart from sustaining your interest, what must a piece of music possess to make it well-suited for choreography?
I like it when it’s not well-suited. That’s something I like: when I hear something and think ‘How can that possibly work out?’ Many, many years ago as a teenager I choreographed the fourth movement, the pizzicato movement, of the Bartók Fourth String Quartet. I love all of the Bartók quartets, and that seemed like a nice little weird dance: it’s very short and it’s all pizz and it’s quick. Then, thirty, seventy-five years later, I decided to do the whole piece, the whole quartet. So I kept the dance intact from when I was seventeen, when I made it up, and went back and sort of retro-choreographed it. But you listen to the piece and it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? No one can dance to that, you can’t even count it — I don’t know how they play it!’ Then I did the research and sourced all the incredible folk music, all the Magyar folk music Bartók was listening to at the time, and it’s not at all scary. It’s fabulous, fun folkdance music, imitating the gardon [a cello-shaped string instrument hit with a stick] and these weird special effects that only became weird special effects later when it was labeled as this daunting, modern music. At the time, they were just these fabulous folk tunes, stacked up in a weird new way. So the music, circa 1925, that sounds like scary modern music, is actually really friendly and rhythmically interesting. It has to be rhythmically interesting. There has to be ‘the wrong chord’; some phrase has to be the wrong length.
Finally, the music has to be interesting a bunch of times. I study and listen and forget about a piece of music for a long time before I choreograph it. So it has to drive me crazy, it has to be an Ohrwurm [German, literally ‘earworm,’ a tune that invades your consciousness] in one way and I also have to be able to forget about it because I can trust that it’s well enough composed.
Finally choreographing a piece of music that’s driving you crazy, is that a resolution for you, in a way? Is that your full cadence?
Yeah, but then also, sadly, it makes me not want to listen to music anymore. [Laughs.]
Clear the decks.
Yeah, I mean I don’t go home and listen to [Handel’s] L’Allegro [, il Penseroso ed il Moderato].
It seems to me that in the first half of the twentieth century, more choreographers were able to read scores. I feel like you’re the exception rather than the rule now, sadly. What happened?
Well, musicians used to be able to read scores, too.
Wooooooh! I don’t know if they ever had rhythm, but they could read scores. I don’t know. But if you go farther back than that, everybody could play the piano. That’s how you knew music. Even my grandma bought rags and brought them home and played them on the piano.
Transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies for piano —
Exactly. I have friends who are old enough to have learned all of their music that way — that’s great! — instead of the only recording of that piece, whatever it is, that anybody heard, which drives me nuts! I hate that, and I read music enough to be able to do my job really well. I’m not an instrumentalist at all, but I get sense out of a score I feel that a lot of people don’t get [because] I’m not reading it analytically — there’s nobody telling me I’m flat or late. [Laughs.]
People who aren’t dancers tend to think of dance in rigid counts of 5-6-7-8 — Broadway chorus line-type stuff. But with gestural movement, movement that is choreographed to musical lines and musical motives, there’s a different sort of rhythm there.
Yes, there are a million different kinds of rhythm. The simple answer is: dancers are incapable of ruining a musical performance. I only work with living musicians. So we’re putting on a show: there’s a band and dancers. The dancers cannot ruin the music. It can’t be done. However, the musicians can completely destroy a dance, the dance part of the piece.
Through bad tempo?
Through bad playing. Everybody always jokes — they cite a different conductor, it’s always [Thomas] Beecham or somebody asking the dancer — ‘How do you want it tonight? Too fast or too slow?’ That’s the joke. If everybody knew that I had known that joke my whole life, they wouldn’t tell it to me all the time.