Daring duo Kevin O’Day and John King meld music and dance in Grace Symmetry
Renowned choreographer Kevin O’Day and composer John King have one of the richest, most enduring working partnerships in the dance world today. Since they first collaborated in the early ’90s, they’ve created dozens of works together, King following O’Day from commissions at places like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and New York City Ballet all the way to Ballett Nationaltheater Mannheim in Germany, where the dance artist is now artistic director.
So it comes as just a bit of a surprise when the affable composer states, “I’ve never tried to write music that’s dance music.”
Speaking to the Straight from his home in New York City before the premiere of his and O’Day’s new commission for Ballet B.C. and the Turning Point Ensemble, King says it’s something he’s refused to do since he first worked with legendary dance artist Merce Cunningham in the 1980s.
“This was something Merce was open to and that Kevin was open to: I always want it to be music that could stand alone,” he explains. “It’s a respect for the choreography that the music and movement are sort of partners—equals. I’ve never wanted the music to be background; I’ve never wanted it to be foreground.”
That tells you a lot about the kind of bold, edgy work the duo has created over the past couple of decades, as they’ve pushed each other artistically.
“After making so many creations together, we’ve challenged one another and gone in directions that were not necessarily obvious to each of us in the beginning,” explains O’Day by phone from Mannheim. “Over a period of time, we have developed a lot of understanding and a lot of trust.”
Dance and new-music fans in Vancouver are in the fortunate position of having a front-row seat to what happens when these two inspired minds join forces on a world premiere for Ballet B.C. They’re even luckier to have a chance to hear King’s score performed live by our own Turning Point Ensemble, with this piece customized to the band as part of the mixed program Grace Symmetry. Here, live music is a rarity in contemporary ballet; to O’Day, it’s integral to the magic.
“For me, here in Mannheim, it’s a huge goal and mandate to try to incorporate new music or live music always,” says the choreographer, who has danced for everyone from the Joffrey Ballet to American Ballet Theatre and the Frankfurt Ballet. “We have luck here in Germany to have these large orchestras with 60 to 80 players. For me, this experience with live, played music gives dance a whole other energy and dimension.”
King, who travelled here in November to work on his new composition, time-vectors/still-points, with the ensemble, was well aware that the piece will be the finale on the three-part Grace Symmetry program (following creations by Parisian choreographer/Nederlands Dans Theater dancer Medhi Walerski and Vancouver’s Wen Wei Wang).
“In my mind it was a piece that would move from an open time, and then slowly a pulse would insert itself and grow and become a constant pulse. It would just build and build and build to the end,” King explains.
As you may have figured out, this is not about matching steps exactly to beats. O’Day and King are playing complicated games of pacing—to a point where the music and the dance sometimes break out onto separate paths, coming together at “meeting points”, as O’Day calls them.
“We occupy the same space of time for that duration, but it’s a more organic, natural coexistence of sound environment and music and meeting points,” he says. “I find it exciting when there’s a realm of the unexpected.”
What we’re talking about here is highly sophisticated time management, a feat of physical virtuosity and advanced compositional play. And the fact that both artists so strongly commend the openness of the performers who will be carrying out this intricate—and risk-taking—symbiosis of movement and music says something about the level of ability we have at Ballet B.C. and Turning Point.
By not supplying mere “dance music”, but a score that has a strength and energy of its own, King has given both the ability to push their art forms forward.