Behind the scenes: Music at the Vail Dance Festival enhances programming |

Behind the scenes: Music at the Vail Dance Festival enhances programming

By Sarah Silverblatt-Buser
Special to the Daily
Artistic Director Damian Woetzel, Lil Buck and Jason Moran discuss a new collaboration with Michelle Dorrance for the International Evenings programs.
Kate Penner | Special to the Daily

The Vail Dance Festival is known as an epicenter of dance. But dance is not the only element of the two-week celebration that resonates beyond the Vail Valley.

Under Artistic Director Damian Woetzel, also the President of The Juilliard School in New York City, the live music offered at the Festival has grown in as dynamic a manner as the dance that has catapulted the Vail Dance Festival to international recognition. This year’s musical offerings outdo any previous year’s performances. 

Caroline Shaw, the Festival’s Pulitzer Prize winning Leonard Bernstein Composer-in-Residence, collaborated with celebrated choreographer Pam Tanowitz for a new work that will be presented on Aug. 5 for NOW: Premieres, an evening of world premieres. Shaw, who has worked with artists ranging from Renée Fleming to Kanye West, described the collaboration with Tanowitz in a series of questions: “How does Tanowitz think about movement and form, and how does she make decisions? How would she interact with musical modules and phrases and textures, and would it be similar to how she choreographs with dancers?”

Shaw’s referential compositions work in tandem with Tanowitz’s complex weavings of deconstructed classical and modern movement. For the 2019 Festival, Shaw is also collaborating with Michelle Dorrance, and Tiler Peck is using Shaw’s existing quartet piece, “Thousandth Orange,” for her new work. Shaw is truly a composer-in-residence.

Shaw’s work with Tanowitz, Dorrance and Peck follows last summer’s collaboration with Memphis jooker Lil Buck. Shaw sampled phrases spoken by Lil Buck over a heavy, pulsating beat that reverberated into the limestone of the Rockies. This year, Lil Buck joined tap dancer and music maker Michelle Dorrance along with the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director of Jazz, Jason Moran, for a new work that will also be performed on Aug. 5 for NOW: Premieres. 

Support Local Journalism

Jason Moran is unencumbered by the confines of form. In addition to creating work alongside Dorrance and Lil Buck, The MacArthur “Genius” Fellow worked with contemporary ballet choreographer Alonzo King on an unprecedented collaboration involving four LINES dancers and four New York City Ballet dancers. The rare cross-coastal creation was presented in International Evenings of Dance II on Aug. 3 and will return for NOW: Premieres on Aug. 5. 

Moran’s creative process is based on one of the essential tenets of jazz music: the “set,” in which musicians come together to engage in a collaborative process of improvisation, riffing off of one another to create the musical experience. This rewardingly free-form process is central to the Vail Dance Festival ethos. 

The composer’s presence at the Festival is impressive for the dancers and awe-inspiring for the Juilliard Jazz Musicians, who describe Moran as an idol and authority on jazz. “The SlapPack” is a group of five recently graduated Juilliard musicians who were invited by Woeztel. The group has already made several appearances warming up audiences before performances and during intermissions, and as the jam band for the yearly Vail Dance Festival Jam. Alberta Khoury is a classical guitarist also hailing from Juilliard and performed in the vibrant re-creation of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Fandango” for rising New York City Ballet star Roman Mejia. 

The Juilliard musicians made festival history alongside Shaw, “Hamilton” Music Director Kurt Crowley, festival string quartet Brooklyn Rider, and multi-instrumentalist Kate Davis, as they played the original score by pioneering composer John Cage in accompaniment to the Merce Cunningham piece “Antic Meet,” staged and conducted by Melissa Toogood. The assemblage of musicians from surprisingly varied backgrounds, in the same adventurous spirit as the great modern choreographer himself, served as a spontaneous Orchestra-in-Residence for one night only on International Evenings of Dance I on Aug. 2.    

The neighboring Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra also boasts an accomplished ensemble of musicians hailing from across the nation for a summer season in the mountains. On opening night, the Orchestra accompanied The Colorado Ballet and principals from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre in George Balanchine’s stirring “Serenade” to music by Peter Tchaikovsky. The Orchestra returns on Aug. 9 to accompany the Martha Graham Dance Company’s “quintessentially American” performance of “Appalachian Spring” with music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Copland. 

The music is half the show when it comes to dance.

“The best choreographers ‘make you hear the music differently,’” said former principal pianist of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, Cameron Grant. 

Support Local Journalism