Stalking the halls of conservatories everywhere, there are purist professors who insist music should never be combined with any other activity — Mozart didn’t craft his piano concertos to serve as the backdrop for candlelit dinners of spaghetti marinara, for heaven’s sake — or with art.
Their protestations notwithstanding, there’s a long tradition of musicians experimenting with genre blending, fusing their scores with theater, film and dance.
A collective of local artists is having a whack at the final category, believing collaboration enhances the power of their individual works. It’s an organic approach which would no doubt be espoused by Anna, the central character in the eponymous “rock ballet,” jointly conceptualized by local band Stephanie’s Id and choreographer Ann Dunn and performed by the Asheville Ballet, accompanied by Stephanie’s Id, featuring Menage. (Allison Hertzberg dances the title role.)
Anna! is the story of a woman who emerges from a painful cycle of love and loss as a sensitive, caring presidential candidate. “We need Anna,” says Stephanie’s Id front woman Stephanie Morgan. “She would make a utopian president.”
But is Anna enough of a politicker to persuade detractors that we need rock ballet?
While there have been some heady achievements in the genre-busting form since Robert Joffrey in 1967 switched on the strobe lights and staged Astarte, the modifier “rock” still clings to the word “ballet” the way the adjective “female” was once affixed to titles like “doctor” or “business owner” to distinguish from accepted norms. And it’s not just nattering purists who are blocking rock ‘n’ roll’s march from the barroom to the barre room: Some very collaboration-friendly critics have questioned the value of rock ballet.
The challenge for Anna — and Anna! — is to somehow redefine rock ballet and push its evolution forward.
Footlights vs. laser lights
“They occasionally meet, and rarely meet well,” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Curatorial Director Howard Kramer says of rock music and formal dance. According to Kramer, rock is seldom an equal partner when paired with theater or ballet. “My theory is [that] music and theater don’t mix well because it’s more theater than music,” continues Kramer, ticking off a list of Broadway flops that featured dances choreographed to rock standards.
Kramer is especially disdainful of productions created by outsiders as paeans to rock. But those steeped in ballet rather than rock traditions worry that dance is given short shrift by productions built around the throbbing beats of the Doors or Pink Floyd, whose discography inspired Go Ask Alice, a James Canfield-choreographed extravaganza that proved so popular upon its premiere that Oregon Ballet Theatre had to add more performances to satisfy demand.
“Rhythmically, the music is not very complex,” choreographer Robert Garland admitted to Pointe Magazine in 2002, referring to his struggle to preserve the infectious repetitive quality of Aretha Franklin’s and James Brown’s chart toppers — without resorting to simplistic movement — when creating Return for the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
But as choreographers have discovered, most audiences don’t care. So long as they can tap their toes while the pros pirouette, they’re happy to buy tickets — which is what really moves many a financially beleaguered dance company these days. According to the Fresno Bee, the Fresno Ballet this year developed a Pink Floyd treatment of its own after determining no other music was as likely to draw such a wide-ranging demographic.
Rock’s most meaningful forays into traditional art forms, however, have been undergirded not by commercial concerns but by the unabashed belief that rough, brutal struggle gives way to hope, love and friendship. It’s there at the heart of Twyla Tharp’s popular Movin’ Out, an ode to Billy Joel created years after Tharp’s pioneering Deuce Coupe teased the balletic out of the Beach Boys. It invigorates the Who’s Quadrophenia and, to a certain extent, Tommy, a performance phenomenon that Les Grands Ballets Canadiens toured as a rock ballet before it was transformed into a rock opera.
Anna! follows a similar script, tracing the central character’s descent into despair and ensuing self-realization that ultimately lead to triumph. It’s very much a universal story, as both Dunn and Morgan are quick to emphasize.
“I titled it ‘Everybody’s Autobiography,’ or something esoteric like that,” Dunn remarks of an early draft. The name Anna was supplied by Morgan, whose mother and grandmother shared it. The compromise crystallized the collaborative spirit that has energized the project from the outset.
“The collaboration with Stephanie has just been awesome,” says Dunn.
And Morgan offers that she’s still awed by Dunn’s flexibility, citing the director’s willingness to approach her band’s music. “I just love that we’ve had this opportunity,” the singer says. “We’ve been very much in synch. And for her to have just done Swan Lake and be open to this: This is a real actualization for us.”
While Dunn has incorporated rock and pop sounds into her work before — most notably in her first version of Paradise Lost, choreographed to Mick Jagger — she readily admits 45 rpm isn’t exactly her speed. She’s proudly grounded in a classical tradition.
“I’m not a rock ‘n’ roll follower,” Dunn imparts quaintly. “I like Tosca and things like that.”
But when Stephanie’s Id keyboardist Chuck Lichtenberger, who had previously composed music to match Dunn’s choreography, approached Dunn with an early copy of the band’s newest release Spiral In, she was entranced.
“I listened to the music and I heard a story,” Dunn says. “I saw movement. The movement was coming at me right away.”
Dunn instantly rearranged the tracks in her head, shuffling the embryonic story with the ease of an iPod. The narrative she envisioned began with Track 11, “inviting the audience into our mind,” continued with Track 9, “the birth of self, out of the matrix of selves,” and ricocheted across the disc until concluding with Track 12.
“The music suggested a story about the way we compose our own stories in this world,” muses Dunn. “We’re not alone on this planet.”
Morgan was immediately responsive to Dunn’s reading, though she concedes it wasn’t exactly what she had in mind when she wrote the songs. Happily, “The way I write is very subject to interpretation,” she says. “It’s easy to weave the lyrics in with a story.”
According to Morgan, by grafting a recognizable story onto her songs, Dunn was only formalizing something Morgan’s band’s fans have done for years. One of Stephanie’s songs, which had nothing to do with sex when she penned it, is now generally hailed as her “loss of virginity” song. But never before had any of Morgan’s listeners tried to translate their understanding of her lyrics into dance, or at least not the sort that qualifies for performance on the Diana Wortham stage.
As a former gymnast, Morgan had flitted in and out of the dance world — “the environment is not totally foreign,” she says — but initially wasn’t sure how her fans would respond to the meshing of two usually very disparate forms. Many fans were first exposed to the collaboration-in-the-making at IdFest, a blowout show at the Grey Eagle this summer.
“I’ve been really surprised at how our fans have embraced this,” says Morgan. “We like to blur the boundaries of different arts, and our fans are right there with us.”
The singer anticipated a loud collective gulp upon release of the show’s ticket prices, which range from $25-$40 — figures more familiar to fans of washed-up ’70s superstars working the casino circuit than to followers of homegrown talent like Stephanie’s Id.