UVic News – University of Victoria

There’s no doubt that the COVID era has had a devastating impact on the arts industry, but it’s also provided time and space for bold new creative collaborations. One such initiative is a new campus/community project involving the School of Music, Ballet BC and Dance Victoria, which sees three teams of choreographers and dancers create a triptych of new works to brand new music by a trio of faculty composers.

After an initial Zoom meeting in late 2021 that saw music teachers Patrick Boyle, Christopher Butterfield and Anthony Tan connect with Justin Rapaport, Livona Ellis and Zenon Zubyk (respectively) of Ballet BC, the newly formed teams of composers/choreographers have then put to work, with the composers working in totally different musical styles and the choreographers each putting together their own team of dancers. The resulting pieces will debut at an intimate workshop at Dance Victoria Studios on March 13, hosted by Dean of Fine Arts Allana Lindgren.

Collaborative projects are challenging, but they are certainly rewarding. It’s a very different practice: in some ways you have to let go because it’s not just about your music, it’s about the work as a whole.

—Anthony Tan, professor at the School of Music

Tan, who recently won the Canada Council for the Arts’ 2021 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music, creates an approximately 15-minute electronic composition that samples the very sounds of the four dancers themselves as the basis for his piece.

“I’m interested in the sound of people doing things, if that makes sense: in terms of musical composition, I often work with auxiliary sounds that are separated from the main instrument and then electronically distorted, so you don’t can’t really say what it is anymore,” he explains. “In dance, I’m inspired by the sounds of people dancing — their jumps, their breathing, their feet touching the ground — so I wanted to explore that idea.”

Anthony Tan, music school teacher

For Ballet BC’s Ellis, this is the first time she’s worked directly with a composer, let alone Butterfield, who will perform onstage alongside her three dancers for their 12-minute piece. “It’s interesting because the combination of two artistic voices can create endless possibilities or can end up stifling the expression of both artists,” she says. “I’m grateful that Christopher was so supportive and so open to trying anything. It allowed me to be more clear about my direction.

It’s a sentiment shared by Tan in his work with choreographer Zubyk. “A lot of the challenge and the joy of working across disciplines is the process,” he says. “Being a composer is a bit like being a playwright: you are often locked up all alone until you give your piece to the musicians, and only then do you finally hear it. But it’s a collaboration with a choreographer and dancers, so they improvise based on ideas and the piece develops organically. When a new piece of music is involved, there is always a certain amount of unknown. . . a good deal of delayed gratification is involved.

School of Music & Ballet BC Creative Teams
School of Music & Ballet BC Creative Teams

Ellis – who has previously only choreographed to pre-existing music – is enthusiastic about this new approach. “It was really wonderful getting to know Christopher and his musical history,” she says. “I could listen to him talk for hours; he has such a vast knowledge of music, both in his academic and lived experience. . . . I was interested to see how our exchange of ideas would influence my creative vision and what kind of balance we would find. The fact that sound develops after movement challenged me to understand rhythm, timing and punctuation in a different way, and prompted me to explore my choreography with a different lens.

For both Tan and Zubyk, this project offers an opportunity to break down the walls between performers, audiences and the artists themselves. “It was interesting to do everything remotely. There was a lot of back and forth because we couldn’t get into the same room very often,” Tan says. “I’m very curious to see how it all comes together.”

Like a campus/community Venn diagram, the search for common ground is at the heart of this project, whether between composers and choreographers or the presenting partners themselves.

“I’m really excited to work with Ballet BC and grateful for this opportunity,” says Tan, who has previously composed for dancers in Calgary and Montreal. “I am happy that an academic institution can collaborate with a professional company like this – it is a good way to connect the different fields.”

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