Stephens choreographers, MU composers collaborate on original pieces for dance concert

Thursday, November 14, 2013 | 6:45 p.m. CST
Choreographers from the Stephens College dance program partnered with student composers from the Mizzou New Music Initiative to create original performance pieces for the Stephens College Senior Dance Concert. Composers and choreographers worked together to create original music and dance.

COLUMBIA — Five dancers in long white dresses spun across the stage of Stephens College's Macklanburg Playhouse, skirts flaring out around them.  

Stephens senior Kramer Pruitt and MU sophomore Shaun Gladney watched the rehearsal from the theater's third row. As the dancers leapt and twirled, Pruitt followed their movements with her head, nodding along, occasionally raising a hand as if to direct them — when one landed a difficult step, she grinned and gave a silent thumbs-up — while Gladney busily took notes on his iPad.

If you go

WHAT: Stephens College Senior Dance Concert

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Stephens College's Macklanburg Playhouse, 100 Willis Ave.

COST: $6 for students and seniors, $8 for the general public

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As the dancers took their bows, Gladney approached the front of the theater to address the pit orchestra.

"I liked the improv you did with the piano at the end of the first movement," he said to the musicians. "Do that every time."

Pruitt and Gladney make up one of six MU composer-Stephens choreographer pairs who have collaborated to produce original music and choreography for the 2013 Stephens College Senior Dance Concert, which takes place this weekend. This is the first year the concert will feature original music.

The collaboration was spearheaded by William Lackey of the Mizzou New Music Initiative, who reached out to Carol Estey, head of the Stephens College dance department, earlier this year.

"I think it's one of the most natural collaborations, getting composers and dancers together," Lackey said. "Mizzou doesn't have a dance department, so we thought this would be a great opportunity to work together with Stephens."

In May, students selected for the project saw and heard samples of one another's work, then attended a "speed-dating" session where they discussed their approaches to creating art. In the end, each participant chose a partner who wanted to use a similar musical style, scope and theme.

"I knew right away that I wanted to do something big and ambitious," said senior choreographer LeeAnn Davis, who partnered with composer Trey Makler, a sophomore. "Some people during the speed-dating would listen to my ideas and get this scared deer-in-the-headlights look, but Trey started bouncing ideas right back at me. That's how I knew we would be a good match."

Overcoming the 'language barrier'

Choreographers and composers usually work separately, Gladney said. Typically, choreographers create dances based on existing music, while composers have little input on dances that accompany their pieces.

In the Stephens-MU collaboration, working together from the beginning allowed each partner to create something personal and maintain a coherent vision.

The partnerships also required the students to learn new skills and terminology to communicate effectively. 

"There was definitely a bit of a language barrier at first," Gladney said. "Composing is very different from choreographing. When you compose, things are very precise and set in stone. Choreography is more fluid a lot of the time — you can experiment more in the moment. When you're trying to communicate across those boundaries, you learn a lot about the other person's art form."

Davis admitted that she initially struggled with communicating in musical terms.

"Sometimes, in the beginning, I'd be talking to Trey about something musical I liked, and I'd say, 'Can you include more of that plunking sound?' And he'd just stare at me," she said. "We would have to play it back and listen again so I could go, 'Okay, this sound is what I mean.'"


Each pair approached their collaboration from a unique perspective, hoping to communicate different themes and emotions. 

Davis and Makler's creation, "Southern Suite," is based on Davis's hometown, Okeechobee, Fla.

The piece is meant to take audiences on a tour of Okeechobee, using different styles of dance and music to represent its different social groups. Plucking strings and lively group dance represent the townspeople, while smooth, gliding harmonies accompany the appearance of four poised Southern belles.

"It was really important to me that, if my parents or someone else from Okeechobee came to this concert knowing my piece was inspired by the town, they would get exactly what they expected," Davis said.

Senior choreographer Stephanie Reynolds' piece, "Echolocation," features dancers imitating the movement and social patterns of bats: arms outstretched like wings, groups of dancers unite in brief synchronicity before breaking into smaller independent groups.

To create the music for "Echolocation," MU graduate student Justin Pounds reworked a piece called "Electric Brain" that he had written before the collaboration. 

"Stephanie took it in a different direction than I had originally imagined when she came up with the echolocation theme," Pounds said. "I wasn't thinking of bats when I wrote it, but I can't unthink it now. It totally works and it's great."

Valuable experience

Both composers and choreographers said the collaboration has helped them expand their skill sets and prepare for the future.

Gladney, who hopes to become a professional composer, said working with Pruitt has allowed him to gain experience working with others to create a cohesive overall product. 

Pruitt plans to move to New York City and pursue a career in dance, and she said the skills she gained this year will be valuable no matter what she does.

"Normally if I were to commission a composer to make something just for me, it would cost something like $2,500," she said. "I'm so lucky that I got to work on that kind of collaboration here for free and carry that forward with me. It's been such a great experience."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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