“I Feel an Abundance”: a composer dives into the world of dance

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“Arrghh, the pressure! Exclaimed composer Lido Pimienta, after learning that she and choreographer Andrea Miller were the first all-female team to be commissioned to create a piece for the New York City Ballet.

When this dance, “sky to hold on”, in costumes by Esteban Cortázar, debuts at the company’s fall fashion gala on Thursday night, the two women will be breaking new ground. For Miller, a contemporary choreographer who danced with the Batsheva Ensemble in Israel before founding her New York company Gallim Dance, this will be the first time that she has created a piece on pointe. And for Pimienta, a Canadian-Colombian singer-songwriter whose music incorporates Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and electronic elements, “sky to hold” is her first theatrical score.

And more: Pimienta, who incorporated her voice and songs, which she will perform live, into the score, is also the first female composer of color to create a piece at the City Ballet. The sheet music is not the company’s usual fare: it includes vallenato, a genre of popular folk music from Colombia, and dembow (“heavy, very groovy beat,” Pimienta said) from the Dominican Republic, sometimes making an unconventional use of classical instruments such as the harp.

Much of the collaboration between Miller, who lives in New Haven, and Pimienta, who lives in Toronto and London, Ont., Has been done remotely. But last week, Pimienta arrived in New York and at rehearsals.

“It’s pretty cool to have him with us, to watch us and react as artists,” lead dancer Sara Mearns said in a phone interview. “Andrea warned us, know the music, don’t just rely on her voice because she might not do the same thing every show. I like it; you have to be there, in the moment.

In a video interview, with Miller on a train and Pimienta in a temporary apartment, they discussed the evolution of the score and the choreography, and how Pimienta came to play in the work. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did this collaboration come about? Did you know each other?

ANDRE MILLER I told a friend, who was working with Lido at the time, that I had a City Ballet commission and that I really wanted to take music seriously. She said: “Stop there: this is Lido Pimienta. I knew Lido’s music, he’s a superstar, so my jaw dropped. My husband and I and our kids listen to his music all the time, and it’s so exciting, so inspiring, that you want to dance on your headphones.

LIDO PIMIENTA Funny, when Andrea contacted me, I was working on the music for my next album and I was really thinking about the orchestration.

It’s the first time I’ve done something this big, and I’m still struggling with impostor syndrome. But I thought to myself: even though I’ve never composed for 66 musicians before, there are 66 channels in the music I produce. If Andrea thinks I’m worthy, that’s fine!

How did you get started? Did you discuss any specific ideas, images or styles of music?

PIMIENTA We were constantly communicating and dreaming together. I continued to watch Andrea’s work which was very inspiring for me. My songs are about me and my lived experience, but for that they also had to be about Andrea and the dancers, so I wanted to create a story with the music that we could all tap into.

MILLER It was a particularly dark time during the pandemic, and I was thinking of the heat, the sun on my face, going dancing with strangers! I wanted the warmth of privacy, the summer, the heat. I gave Lido an idea of ​​this, and I also let him know which pieces of his music inspired me a lot.

PIMIENTA My job was to translate these ideas and feelings into music. As a Colombian, I know that feeling of the sun hitting your face while you are lying in a hammock. It gave me an introduction; a feeling of heat, but also of tension.

I’m a singer and I would say my job is about storytelling, so once I got that idea, in my head there was this whole movie going on. I thought I should tell Andrea that, so I sat down and wrote and illustrated the story I saw.

It is a seed, which falls in love with a storm. To get to the light and the heat, you have to cross the storm, and it has become the common thread of the music.

Andrea, how did the evolution of the score affect the development of the choreography?

MILLER Lido is so generous, and let me listen without telling me how anything should be. But after receiving the story, I had so much more to say and discover. There was something about his story and his designs that reminded me of both the magical realism of Colombia and the symbolism and mysticism of Chagall, whose work I love.

In the ballet, I have a seed character, Taylor Stanley, and a storm, Sara Mearns, but I’m not afraid that makes sense. The shape and feel of it is just there to absorb and take away, like looking at a painting.

Lido, how does it feel to see your work give a visual counterpart?

PIMIENTA It’s powerful, it’s extreme – I feel an abundance. When I see the dance responding to the rhythm, to the sound, to the melody, it is very moving for me. I said to Andrea, maybe you should take another singer, because I might cry throughout the ballet!

Was that still part of the shot you sing on stage?

PIMIENTA Never in a million years have I thought I would be on stage. But after Andrea got the first draft of the score, she said, where’s your voice? I thought, okay, I’ll be in the pit, and she said, “We’re going to put you on stage and give you some steps. I said NOOOOO, so the trade-off is that I’ll be on the side of the stage.

Now, of course, I’m totally in the fantasy. I had my fitting yesterday, and I was like, how fabulous am I going to be? Maybe I’ll take a tour of the stage!

There is pressure to be the first team of female choreographers to create something entirely new for the company. (Violette Verdy created a dance to an existing score by Mary Jeanne van Appledorn, in 1988.) It’s still remarkable; are things changing?

MILLER There has been significant progress, but I also feel sadness for all the talented women who could not choreograph, compose or be recognized in their time. And I’m always aware that when we talk about things that turn around, we don’t think globally.

PIMIENTA I’m South American, Native, Black, Brown, Immigrant – sometimes I feel like I’m just those boxes checked. So to have that support and that confidence is just amazing.

It makes me sad for this world of classical music and ballet that it is so remarkable that we are women because in my musical world I work mainly with women. But it’s not just that. Having more people like me is important because there is also a class gap; people don’t necessarily feel comfortable going to a symphony concert or a ballet. That’s a shame. To me, the classical world actually feels very contemporary, quite what is happening now. I want more people to understand how strong and inspiring this can be.

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