Together again, for the first time.

Composer-in-residence Stella Sung takes on collaborative challenge

By Arnecia Patterson

Photo: The Dayton Ballet presents “Creative Convergence” Feb. 12-15

Across dance genres – concert, street, reality television – the pairing of music and dance is ubiquitous by now. Specifically, ballet, modern and contemporary choreographers perpetuate a centuries-old history of using composers whose music they fancy for their ideas on the stage. Noteworthy choreographers with styles that run the gamut – Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Garth Fagan – have found inspiration in music composed by Igor Stravinsky, John Cage and Wynton Marsalis. Pop culture, televised, dance competitions devote entire episodes to genres of music to strike a chord with viewers and increase ratings.

Dayton Ballet’s upcoming presentation, “Creative Convergence” will feature many points of dance coming together including the joining of new music with choreography. The program includes a vaudeville flavored dance, “Five Flights Up,” choreographed by Stephen Mills to music by the Squirrel Nut Zippers; a Dayton premiere of Gina Patterson’s “You Are Here;” local choreographer and former dancer with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company DeShona Pepper Robertson’s new work, “Speak;” and Dayton Ballet Artistic Director Karen Burke’s “Fate of Place” choreographed to a new composition by Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Music Alive” composer-in-residence, Stella Sung.

Sung’s experience with music, dance and technology, when paired with Burke’s choreography, creates an inventive rapport that addresses how genres converge to make new dances.

Stella Sung is a natural choice for a composer slated to work for three years with the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, explicitly including its dance component, the Dayton Ballet. Her experience includes composing for orchestra, opera and dance and performance training. She learned her way around a dance studio as a girl studying at the Pofahl Studios in Gainesville, Florida, which led to a long-time collaboration with its company, Dance Alive National Ballet. That relationship began back in the 1980s and now has nine ballets to its credit including a full-length, “Ballet Toshiko” based on the work of the late potter, Toshiko Takaezu.

Performance is another feature Sung brings to the dance studio floor. It was the focus of her undergraduate training prior to studying composition at the graduate level.

“I did not start really doing composition until my Master’s degree,” Sung said. “I am a classically trained pianist and that’s what I always thought I would be doing: classical recitals, performance, teaching.”

Her prediction about teaching has come to fruition and provides her with an intimate understanding of creative exchanges that reach beyond the ordinary. In addition to her position as professor of music in the School of Visual Arts and Design at the University of Central Florida, she is director of the Center for Research and Education in Arts, Technology and Entertainment. There, she regularly works with students who use technology for music composition and stage design in a variety of media. Those relationships foster her openness to influences that dovetail with her own creative impulses. Her students encouraged the technological facilitation between genres –

film, composition, stage design, lighting, animation and projections.

“I started working with technology in my studio back in the 1980s,” Sung said. “My students pushed me into the next technology realm because they wanted to work with film. I needed to learn how to use that equipment so that I could work with my students.”

A creative, artistic collaboration, even the natural one between a composer and choreographer, poses complexities that hew the process with reciprocal questioning and problem solving. It requires broad-mindedness in order to finish the work. When Sung visited Dayton in 2013, she probed the places and people she knew, from experience, would impact the process.

“Even before I wrote anything for them I observed to get to know the musicians; get to know the dancers a little bit,” Sung said. “I’m at all the rehearsals. I’m at all the performances. For me to write something for a company, I need to know what the dancers are like; what their strengths are. What the space is like. All those kinds of things help inform me.”

Sung and Burke had to get to know each other’s styles and ideas prior to a note of music being written or a step of choreography being made.

“I send Karen music that she says ‘oh, I kind of like this style’ or ‘I don’t like that style,’” Sung explained. “Then we start talking about what the ballet is going to be about. Is it purely abstract or is there a story?”

Receptivity can be tricky even when an artist’s ideas are followed through with the best intentions by a craftsperson in a different genre. Burke’s “Fate of Place” is a custom design in which her ideas for movement are finished with Sung’s craft. When they began discussing the concept of journey that Burke wanted to shape the dance, Sung had to compose music that reflected the sensibilities, tools and techniques of a choreographer and a group of ballet dancers.

It required thinking in a different language, then speaking in her own – foreign travel. Sung had to shape Burke’s dance ideas in her own musical hand.

“When you’re starting out on a journey there is usually some action, some motion; right?” Sung explained. “So, the idea is to write something that will get people moving – get them going towards a goal.”

Subsequent conversations helped each artist to come to terms on ideas about feelings, mood, relationships and character – ideas that needed to result in a musical composition that was danceable.

What makes a piece of music danceable can be hard to address. Sung believes her early training as a dancer influences her desire to compose for dance and her frequency of undertaking the task. She has a natural affinity for the immediacy movement adds to music and an appreciation for the visual dimension of her music brought to life by the dancers.

“They’re right there and you feel that immediate emotion and physicality of dance,” Sung said.

When composing, Sung brings a measure of immediacy to her work, as well. She composes “fairly quickly” and often ends up with several pieces being written simultaneously; however, her ability to seize an impulse and shape it into a finished composition is coupled with her ability to maintain structure. Her compositions allow dancers to find places where they need to be and identify highs and lows. For dance, Sung is trying to establish a work that clearly goes from beginning to end in a cohesive manner while developing the impetus provided to her by the choreographer. Once Burke starts to choreograph the music in the studio, she continues to direct Sung on changes. As for the finished music, it is driven by an instinctive impulse that produces an indescribable interplay of one or more elements that dance.

The hybrid quality of the collaboration between a choreographer and composer might produce a mishmash that taxes the audience’s comprehension; however, that is not the result with “Fate of Place.” Sung describes the music as conventional in terms of harmonic, melodic content. Even when working inside the experimental frame furnished by cross-genre collaboration, she still wants to produce music for dance with a level of engagement that entices people to see more new pieces and seek out their meaning before determining their appeal.

“I hope audience members come away interested and engaged,” Sung said. “Whether they like it or dislike it, or they find something here or there, they’re always going to have different opinions. I hope that people can say ‘Hey, let’s give it a try. Let’s go to the ballet. Let’s see what happens,’ because that’s really all it takes a lot of the time … just that one step.”

With live accompaniment by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Neal Gittleman, “Fate of Place” and the balance of repertory on the program might seem like a mixture of dance styles that is part and parcel of a ballet mixed bag. It is a creative convergence. The real convergence is a nod to dance’s future promoted by a multi-modal alliance, Sung’s pedigreed experience of collaboration, and the Dayton Ballet’s history of staging new works of dance.

The Dayton Ballet presents “Creative Convergence” Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 12-15 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Show times are Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $21-$72 and are available by calling 937.228.3630 or visiting daytonperformingarts.org.

For each performance, Ms. Burke will conduct a pre-performance talk for ticketholders 45 minutes prior to curtain time in the Burnell Roberts Room at 126 N. Main St., beside the Victoria Theatre; a Q&A with dancers will follow each performance in the theatre. Pre- and post-performance talks are free of charge for all ticketholders.

Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Arnecia Patterson
Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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