Most people listen to music.
Choreographers visualize it. And when they translate what they see into dance, audiences often experience familiar compositions in completely different ways.
For Christopher Wheeldon, it's innate. Within 30 seconds of listening to a piece, he knows if it fits.
"I hear music, and I see how that music could be translated into movement," Wheeldon said. "I paint and sculpt music in a way ... and hopefully it transports people."
He trusts his process so completely that he doesn't begin choreographing until he is in the room with the dancers; it all happens in the moment.
"I used to beat myself up about that," Wheeldon said. "I know a lot of choreographers who plan (their pieces). There's a certain safety to that, but it's not interesting being in a studio by myself. It's much more interesting to be in a studio working with dancers."
Last summer, Wheeldon spent 10 days, from dawn to dusk, working spontaneously with the dancers in Vail. This year's piece for NOW, which audiences will see tonight in Vail, will extend Wheeldon's 2011 "3 Movements and 4 Repeats" premiere. (He's also choreographing a piece for the summer Olympics' closing ceremony for retired ballerina Darcey Bussell.)
For the Vail performance, it doesn't hurt that he's working with some of today's finest dancers in a fusion of bare feet and pointe shoes.
"He's combining one of the greatest modern dancers - Fang-Yi Sheu - with one of the greatest ballerinas - Wendy Whelan. It's a fascinating mix," said Damian Woetzel, artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival.
A renowned creative space
When Woetzel first invited him to Vail, Wheeldon saw an opportunity to "create new work out of the public eye in a beautiful place, in an environment focused on dance." He was right - except for the anonymity factor. Now, he realizes it was a fantasy to think Vail remained "out of the public eye" - the festival's reputation draws critics nationwide.
Today, choreographers strive for invitations to present at the festival.
"This has been a strategic goal of ours since we started BalletX," said Matthew Neenan, co-founder.
Neenan is one of those choreographers who not only pushes the body to the next level, but he also opens up audiences' perception of music. He researches songs and their composers, whether classical or pop, looking for clues about their lives and experiences because he believes it all bleeds into the music. Most people, for instance, heard Rufus Wainwright's "My Phone's on Vibrate for You" as a sweet love ballad. Neenan, on the other hand, approached his choreography to the song by translating Wainwright's drug addiction and pain into movement, resulting in a "sad and maybe a little disturbing" interpretation that made audiences hear the pop song differently.
Just like Neenan digs into composers' lives, he also delves into his own heart and soul to emerge with something honest. Only through this sincere communication does he feel he can connect dancers with the audience.
"I think you have to surprise the audience, where they say, 'Wow, I didn't see that coming,' whether you like it or not. I think it's important to feel an array of emotions when you're watching something live," Neenan said.
Neenan didn't reveal the music for his Vail debut, but he said: "It's going to be a very personal piece for the privilege of being there."
Neenan believes in always exploring, even if it means failing, because that, in turn, results in learning and breaking through to the next level.
"He has a particularly unique take on how classical ballet fits in the new world," Woetzel said.
An extraordinary balance
As the festival's artistic director, Woetzel attempts to balance timeless classic works, which audiences can view in Vail's fresh environment, with up-and-coming creations that push the boundaries of dance.
Woetzel expects one of the premieres by Brian Brooks to leave audiences stunned with its feats. Brooks' dances often use movements so virtuosic they seem almost impossible - in fact, he worked extensively with Elizabeth Streb, who is known for her extreme, daredevil choreography.
"Elizabeth Streb does things you don't think can be done, and Brian brings some of that experience with him," Woetzel said, "but Brian also adds a sense of humanity to his work, of how a person relates to the world, or another dancer, or just to the stage - it's a very personal vision that I find extremely affecting."
Tonight, Jodi Melnick will perform a piece choreographed together with Trisha Brown, the revered postmodern dance pioneer. The nine-minute solo performed by Melnick herself is an abstract dance, which slips between casual and formal movement. Titled "One of Sixty Five Thousand Gestures," the piece represents Melnick's first choreographic collaboration with Brown.
"She's incredibly intuitive, smart and rambunctious," Melnick said of Brown.
"She's a wild card. Profound beauty just happens because you're in her presence. Both our spirits are very much present (in this dance.)"
Sokvannara (Sy) Sar will perform "Solo for Sy" by Jill Johnson, a piece scheduled for last year but canceled when Sar became injured. As the title implies, the piece is very much a personal ode to Sar, a Cambodian dancer who was the subject of the documentary "Dancing Across Borders."
Then, the Martha Graham Dance Company presents a "New Lamentation Variation."
The Lamentation Variation Project began in 2007, when the company opened its season on 9/11. In order to honor the day, they asked three choreographers to produce pieces based on the original "Lamentation," Martha Graham's legendary 1930 work. What they came up with was so compelling that the company continued to commission choreographers to expand the body of work. In Vail, the versatile modern-dance maker Doug Varone will premiere his
Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, believes Graham would "be delighted to have all this creative energy springing from her." Just as she might be thrilled to watch choreographers further the field of dance and musical interpretation at the Vail International Dance Festival.
"Vail can be like a lab to try new things," Woetzel said. "The festival lends itself to creativity, and it's an opportunity for the audience to see what's happening across the spectrum of dance and how dancers can come together in unique ways."
Audiences also bear witness to choreographers pushing the boundaries of movement and music, in order to continuously breathe new life into the art of dance.