Collaboration might be the most overused word in the creative nomenclature. What does it really mean? How do we know if we are really doing it?
To examine the anatomy of the collaborative process, I headed straight to choreographer Karen Stokes, composer Bill Ryan and violinist Todd Reynolds, all of whom are working together in The Secondary Colors, presented by Karen Stokes Dance tonight through Saturday at Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall. The piece was made possible in part by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.
The Secondary Colors features a trio of dances aptly titled, Orange, Purple and Green. Each uses a different approach to collaboration.
- Orange is set to Ryan's Launch, exemplifying the traditional way a composer and choreographer come together.
- Green worked in reverse, with Ryan coming up with music for a previously completed dance.
- It's Purple that really pushes the collaborative edge. Ryan and Stokes enlisted an action-response dialogue to build Purple, with dance and music created simultaneously.
When I saw Stokes' piece set to Ryan's music, I knew a potent chemistry was at work. So did they.
"I recognized a kindred spirit. My immediate thought was, 'I like this guy.' I felt his music resonate with my soul. I know that sounds ridiculously deep, but that is how his music affected me."
"When I heard Bill’s music, what struck me was his ability to create complex contemporary music that is also accessible and warm," says Stokes, head of the dance division at UH's School of Theatre & Dance. "I recognized a kindred spirit. My immediate thought was, 'I like this guy.' I felt his music resonate with my soul. I know that sounds ridiculously deep, but that is how his music affected me."
Hearing different things in the music
Ryan had a similar experience when he came to see the piece that Stokes choreographed to his music a few years ago.
"What I saw was remarkable. Not only high quality work, but a true visualization of my music," remembers Ryan, director of the New Music Ensemble at Grand Valley State University. "After the last show she brought up the idea of us collaborating on this project, and I immediately said 'yes.' I've seen my music choreographed many times, and in all honesty, Karen's work resonates with me the most."
Notice that they both used the word, "resonate," a key prerequisite to collaboration.
Stokes feels that having made a dance (Orange) to Ryan's music eased her into the process.
"Choreographing to a piece of music allows me to get inside the work. I listen over and over again – and I hear different things in the music," recalls Stokes. "By the time Bill and I started to work on this project, I felt sure that anything he created would be suitable for my choreography. This proved a great confidence builder."
The Mitchell Center's mission focuses on ground up collaborations, so the give and take method the team undertook to create Purple was right up their alley. "This project contained everything we are looking for, from the process to working across departments," says Karen Farber, Mitchell Center's executive director.
Using YouTube and Skype
Stokes and Ryan developed a working methodology, sending samples and feedback using YouTube and Skype. "We wanted our ideas to influence each other and the outcome, and yet we both wanted to maintain the integrity of our own artistic voices," says Stokes. "I think we have done this. I hope we have."
No matter how well two artists get to know each other's work, collaboration still poses some challenges.
"We both felt like we were trying to work backwards from an unknown place. Somehow, we did manage to put forward some structures and qualities to each other," says Stokes. "Bill has a great sense of humor – and if there is anything I like to do more than dance – it's to laugh."
Surrendering authority to another artist doesn't always come easily.
"I think the hardest part is giving up a portion of control. Artists can be necessarily pretty selfish when it comes to their own work. You definitely have to relinquish some of that in a true collaboration. It's difficult, and a bit scary to let go," says Ryan. "If you really know your collaborator, if you respect them and their work, it can take you places you wouldn't have imagined by yourself."
The intensity of live music
Adding in live music adds a third collaborative force.
"Live music absolutely changes the intensity and energy of the performance," says Ryan. "When dance and music are brought together, it's really magical. There are all kinds of micro variations in the music because of the live players, which gives the dance a bit of an edge.
"Live music absolutely changes the intensity and energy of the performance," says Ryan. "When dance and music are brought together, it's really magical."
"The dancers have to listen a bit more closely I think, to have just a bit more focus on connecting with the music. At the same time, the musicians are suddenly aware of the physicality and visual cues around them, that the dancers are really an extension of what they're doing, which adds an energy to what they're doing."
Ryan and Stokes are bringing in six world class musicians, including Reynolds, most known for his work with Bang on a Can. Other musicians include David Cossin on percussion (Phillip Glass, YoYo Ma, Sting), Michael Lowenstern on bass clarinet (Steve Reich & Musicians, The Klezmatics), Andy Russo on piano (Grammy nominated recording artist), Jonathan Nichol on saxophone (Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Fifth Dimension, Nelson Riddle Orchestra), and Pablo Mahave-Veglia on cello (Trio Montecino).
Reynolds blew the roof off of the CAMH in his Musiqa show last May, when he premiered a new work by Ryan. For the kind of music Reynolds plays, it's often a group think process. "Bill knows my inclinations, the technology I use, and my skill set," says Reynolds. "Our relationship outside of music is a strong friendship and support system that infuses our artistic collaboration as well."
The true power of merging minds can be found it its generative qualities, the synergy between creative minds joined by one task. Reynolds agrees.
"Working alone can be rewarding, but there is nothing like what occurs when two minds birth something that one mind could not conceive of. I love Karen and Bill's work, and we've got a crack band on both sides with which to realize it, full of musicians and movers who want to be there to make some great art."
See and hear for yourself how well Bill Ryan's music goes with Karen Stokes' choreography
Stokes fills us in on The Secondary Colors