Much Ado About Music

January 10, 2011

Modern dance master Mark Morris has said of his choreography, “Every dance ever is because of the music.” Indeed, who can imagine Morris’ vivaciousL’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato set to anything but George Frideric Handel’s exultant score? Music is vital for choreographers in any genre. Here, DS talks to five emerging modern dancemakers about the importance of music to their work and how they find a piece that’s right on pitch.

Jonathan Riedel

Jonathan Riedel, founder of Riedel Dance Theater, spent 10 years with the José Limón Dance Company, performing works by modern dance legends including Limón and Doris Humphrey. Riedel’s choreography brings both drama and humor to the stage.

What he’s looking for in music:
 “I lean toward classical music because it has a lot of room for me to bring my meaning to it. My piece The Divine Comedy was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and I set it to Chopin’s Nocturnes. The choreography is twisted, tormented and emotional. I didn’t want music that had a strict pulse that would constrict the movement.”

Where he finds music:
 “I love Rhapsody [an online music catalog and downloading site similar to iTunes]. Sometimes I don’t know exactly what artist I’m going to use, but I know what time period or sound I want, so I go through the genres on Rhapsody, and I usually land on something I like.”

Jonathan’s Fave Music

  • Emerson String Quartet
  • Vampire Weekend
  • The White Stripes
  • Prince
  • Nine Inch Nails


Nelly van Bommel

Nelly van Bommel, a native of France, choreographs for ballet and modern dance companies, including Ballet Austin, CorbinDances and Springboard Danse Montréal. She formed her own company, NØA Dance, in 2004. Her work focuses on the human experience and ranges from intensely emotional to quirky and fun.

The relationship between music and movement:
 “I usually don’t choreograph to the note. The movement comes in and out of the music. I work in silence for a long time. Then I bring a few music selections to the studio and try out some movement to them. Once I’m set on the music, I rework the choreography toward the new tone, feel and texture that the music brings—or lacks.”

Where she finds music: 
“I have a large personal library of music that I listen to. I see a lot of concerts—classical, jazz, world, pop, everything—in small and big venues. I also share my life with a musician who keeps me informed about great new recordings.”

Nelly’s Fave Music

  • Anything sung by German countertenor Andreas Scholl
  • Traditional folk music, especially polyphonic music, like the French group Lo Còr de la Plana
  • Mozart
  • Arias from Italian opera, particularly those by Verdi, Puccini and Rossini
  • 1980s tunes


Kristen Klein

Kristen Klein’s ballet background influences her contemporary modern choreography, which she creates for her company, Inclined Dance Project. Klein has a fluid and sensual style and her works play with rhythm and props.

What she’s looking for in music:
 “I look for something that has a steady beat. I like high-energy dancing, so I want music to match. I normally don’t start choreographing until I find music that speaks to me in some way—it’s hard for me to start working without music in mind. I think music and dance should go hand in hand. It makes it more enjoyable for the audience.”

Where she finds music:
 “I use Pandora. You choose an artist you like and then Pandora comes up with a bunch of artists who are similar but also have different qualities.”

Kristen’s Fave Bands

  • Animal Collective
  • Radiohead
  • Modest Mouse
  • TV on the Radio
  • The Beatles


Richard Move

Richard Move is best known as the co-producer ofMartha@Mother, a long-running dance cabaret series that featured Move impersonating modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. He has choreographed pieces for Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Martha Graham Dance Company and Paradigm. Move frequently collaborates with visual artist Charles Atlas and writer Hilton Als. And he often mixes his own scores, as he did for Lamentation Variation, his take on Martha Graham’s famous work.

The relationship between music and movement:
 “I like the way Martha Graham used music. Sometimes she would be right on it—the music goes up so the dancer goes up. But then there would be moments in her ballets where it was almost cinematic. She used music to set the mood; she wasn’t gesturing on a specific sound, she was just passing through it.”

Creating his own music: 
“For Lamentation Variation, I wanted to achieve the haunting sense of an old record playing, so I took a very short snippet of Mozart and stretched it out and slowed it down digitally to make a few measures into four minutes. It has a ghostly quality and a feeling of grief.”

Richard’s Fave Music

  • Björk
  • Antony and the Johnsons
  • Lady Gaga
  • Blondie
  • Samuel Barber


Samar Haddad King

Palestinian-Jordanian-American Samar Haddad King grew up in Alabama and has studied modern dance with Kazuko Kabayashi, a former Graham dancer, and Helen Pickett, a former lead dancer with William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. In 2005, she formed her own company, Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre. She was one of three winners of Hubbard Street Dance Center’s 2010 National Choreographic Competition.

What she’s looking for in music:
 “I come from a musical background. I studied piano and was in choir when I was young and I can read music. So when I’m looking for music to choreograph to, if I can get my hands on scores, I do. In music that is layered—polyrhythmic, with many instruments or varying meter—there are dominant beats, notes or melodies. I find that I can fall into the trap of focusing on one layer and dismissing the rest. Sometimes seeing the score gets me out of that.”

Where she finds music:
 “If I’m looking for a specific sound, I’ll Google it, like ‘electronic strings classical.’ ”

Samar’s Fave Music

  • Boikutt
  • Berberock
  • Bob Dylan
  • Zoë Keating
  • K’naan