Vail Dance Festival debuts new music, new choreography |

Vail Dance Festival debuts new music, new choreography

Kimberly Nicoletti
Violinist Johnny Gandelsman has played live music at eight Vail Dance festivals.
Christopher Duggan, Special to the Daily

Violinist Johnny Gandelsman has played live music at eight Vail Dance festivals, and this summer, he’s debuting three new violin solos he commissioned. Each of the three pieces will accompany dancers as choreographers Michelle Dorrance, Lauren Lovette, Lil Buck and Jamar Roberts create new works and present them at Monday’s “NOW: Premieres.”

During last year’s shutdown, Gandelsman commissioned a total of 22 violin solos from renowned composers like Christina Courtin, Rhiannon Giddens and Tyshawn Sorey — all of whom the Vail Dance Festival showcases in the next few days. The 22 pieces, collectively titled “This Is America,” reflect life during 2020.

“I started ‘This Is America’ at the beginning of the pandemic,” Gandelsman said. “The world at that time seemed to be a dark place with COVID and the election and police brutality. The national conversation seemed very binary — you were either blue or red, black or white, Democrat or Republican, for or against this or that. I found that to be depressing. It’s limiting and actually, at the core, not what this country is about. … I immigrated here in 1995 from Russia via Israel, and my experience has been very different, and I wanted to celebrate this place.”

The 22 composers represent a variety of voices, points of view and life experiences; the youngest is 15 and the oldest is older than 80.

“These composers are just a small fraction of an incredible tapestry of voices that are creating in this world today,” Gandelsman said.

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The pieces range from experiential jazz to classical compositions; Gandelsman plans to release the album, “This Is America,” later this year. Some call for Gandelsman to move out of his comfort zone by singing or playing the mandolin or guitar — none of which he’s done before. Others call for improvisation; one young Indian American composer asks him to create music out of fragments she wrote based upon her native tradition. Another piece from an Israeli-American composer simply describes a feeling that Gandelsman must develop and put music to during two of its five movements.

It’s all a stretch for the dancers and choreographers, too. While the composers and choreographers discussed the collaborations via Zoom months prior, Roberts only began choreographing to Sorey’s piece in June (for Calvin III and BalletX). And, in the true spirit of spontaneous creativity that Vail Dance Festival encourages, Lovette, Buck and Dorrance began their choreography about a week prior to its debut.

Gandelsman calls Vail Dance Festival “a playground for the curious,” as dancers bring their vulnerability, patience and bravery to rehearsals, and, ultimately, the stage.

“They just try anything,” Lovette said. “It’s a different kind of energy, and we feed off each other.”

Lovette and Buck gave the audience a sneak peak of their interpretation of Courtin’s composition at Wednesday evening’s “UpClose” performance. Partnering and separating, dancing side by side and lifting one another, the 8-minute piece celebrates the friendship between Buck and Lovette.

“It’s really a story about us. We’ve been friends for almost eight years,” Lovette said.

She describes the music as “very bare, intimate and quiet,” without a lot of driving rhythms or clear melodies. Tutting forms the theme of the choreography; when Buck and Lovette first met in Vail, he taught her an arm tutting sequence she never forgot. It becomes their personal signature, as they mimic one another’s very different movement vocabulary, twist, turn, lift and float, while always remaining connected. Tutting creates an energy of its own; it’s as if they’re passing a ball of energy back and forth, sharing in the flow, as she’s en pointe and he’s in high tops.

“It feels like a memory. It feels like us just bringing back this really cool, fond memory,” Buck said. “It really worked.”

Gandelsman’s live accompaniment adds another fresh element to each of the three pieces. He describes live music as being larger than both the music and the dance: “It’s about the magical place in between. … Live music (offers) a sense of wonder, chance and risk. You just don’t know how it’s going to be night to night. There’s the possibility of the music being affected by the dance and the dance being affected by the music. Nothing ever sounds the same from night to night, and it’s not the goal, it’s not the point.”

Such subtle variation brings a unique energy and experience for the dancers.

“You end up being hyper-present to the moment because you’re not going into an automatic mode,” Lovette said. “It’s a super-charged moment where you’re listening to the tiniest indication that the note is going to start, and it connects you to the moment. You have to be ready for anything. There’s something about turning yourself over to that moment with the music. It’s special for the dancers and it’s special for the audience because they get a new experience that hasn’t ever been done before.”

Monday’s “NOW: Premieres” promises to deliver plenty of new artistic sights, sounds and feels. Buck and Lovette’s piece, “Stroon,” is just one instance where two very different people with distinct vocabularies and styles come together in a tender, touching dance. Their piece, and the others, offer hope that we can all find ways to come together in our common passions and joys, while still maintaining our individuality.


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