The Finest Work Songs: Jürg Koch and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Credit: Steve Korn
Credit: Steve Korn

For the uninitiated, it might be easy to think of choreographers as directors, or even dictators, who work towards their own singular artistic visions. I was happy to be proved wrong by the artist in this week’s post, Jürg Koch. Koch is a choreographer and assistant professor of Dance at the University of Washington. The faculty from UW Dance, Drama, and Music are presenting two performances of Faculty/Dance Collaborations; Koch’s contribution is an intergenerational, multicultural, cross-community performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

In the middle of an intense and challenging tech week, Koch was kind enough to provide some insights on collaboration in dance, choreography, and his version of The Rite of Spring, which promises to be exciting on a number of levels.

Seattle Star: What has collaboration meant for you in your work?

Jürg Koch: Dance in its essence is a collaborative form. First and foremost as a choreographer you are usually working with people, you are collaborating with your dancers. Having said this, how you collaborate can vary greatly from process to process. There are pieces that are more directive and other that elicit more material and contributions from the performers.

In some way a choreographer understands the process of communicating with his dancers in the way a fine artist understands how to “handle” his material, the paints, the varnishes etc.

Beyond collaborating with dancers, choreographers often also work and collaborate with other artists. Dance is inherently multimedia, there is always space, costumes and lights to consider and more often than not also music or sound. There are various thoughts about collaboration around some of them, even considering working with music from a dead composer a collaborative process, as the compositional structure, sound etc. inform the new artistic process.

SStar: What does collaboration look like in this piece, in The Rite of Spring?

JK: This Rite of Spring is a collaboration on various different levels. The collaboration involves three different programs/departments on campus (Dance/Music/Drama). Collaborative conversations happened with the directors and artists from these departments from brainstorming, outlining, finances to finalizing.

This is how we were brought in touch with Josh [Parmenter, of DXARTS/Music], directing and overseeing the programming, setting up, tuning, etcetera of the disklaviers for this project.

Another major component is the collaboration with twenty-four dancers for this project with an intergenerational cast between eight and seventy-plus years old. There are avocational, student and professional dancers in this cast.

Sarah Nash Gates collaborated closely with me on the costumes for this piece.

I guess one big difference in the collaborative process was when, and at what level conversations happened. For instance, with Sarah I started talking at the beginning of Autumn, viewing examples, drafting, considering possibilities, etcetera. All the costumes and the movement material are new elements.

With Josh there were early conversations and exchange of ideas, but then it was all about programming the existing music score into MIDI files. Once this process was completed, the conversations really started about timing, volume, tempo, cues. This being an existing score made it a different type of collaboration.

The music/movement collaboration is reaching its peak, now that we are in the theater. The dancers are tuning into the live sound, the characteristics of the scoring and the sound of these pianos. This is a crucial moment in the collaborative process. As you may be aware there are also technological challenges to be met and this is where I am relying on Josh to have ideas, suggestions and solutions that work.

At the same time we are also lighting the piece, which is a formidable undertaking for this half-hour work. Peter Bracilano is the lighting designer. While we had a number of conversations, now is when these ideas can actually be realized.

As part of the collaborative process I built a website, where I posted videos of the work in progress that the various collaborators could access. In some way it can be argued that I am collaborating with Stravinsky, but also with a number of influential Rites that have been created over the past one hundred years. The musical structure, the melodic outlines, the original and various later scenarios inform my current work.

SStar: What are the necessary ingredients for successful artistic collaborations?

JK: Having a shared understanding of how each artists contributes. What are our roles and responsibilities. If this understanding is not shared at some stage, the ability to talk about it with clarity. Also a sense of trust, a sense of one’s own contribution and our interdependence.

SStar: During the process, what kinds of collaborative pitfalls have you had to navigate or work through?

JK: Different timelines for a project can be tricky to navigate. For instance, essentially it was sufficient for the MIDI files to be ready for the concert. This being a collaboration we needed the files ready sooner and have a recording approximating the performance sounds available for rehearsals in order for the dancers to start working with the timing and recognizing cues.

Faculty/Dance Collaborations runs on January 18th and 19th, 2013 at Meany Hall. Both performances are at 7:30 PM. Tickets are available through UW’s Meany Hall Ticket Office.

A preview video is here.

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