Through collaboration, BalletCollective and the Knights find new heights

Through collaboration, BalletCollective and the Knights find new heights

A slight drizzle created a haze over Dumbo as members of BalletCollective and the Knights gathered for a dress rehearsal of their new collaboration, “Faraway.” There were still some details to work out, like how and when the dancers should mingle with the orchestra in their joint adieu to the audience. But as the night wore on, the program’s creative team buzzed between each piece with an ease that revealed the electric closeness between the two innovative groups.

The program, running through Oct. 26 at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, brings together the orchestra of the Knights with the dancers of the BalletCollective, along with artists and composers, to create an ambitious synthesis of movement and music. Divided into six sections, the performance slate features work from composers such as Julianna Barwick, Judd Greenstein and Paul Moravec, in addition to choreographers Troy Schumacher, Preston Chamblee and Gabrielle Lamb.

The Knights in rehearsal for "Faraway." Photo: Erin Baiano.
The Knights in rehearsal for “Faraway.” Photo: Erin Baiano.

“The idea was to combine music and dance in a very close way,” said Troy Schumacher, choreographer and artistic director of BalletCollective — a group of dancers drawn from New York City Ballet. “It’s always so indispensable; dance can’t exist without music, whether it’s old or new.”

The program also visually combines music and dance, placing the orchestra and the dancers side-by-side, rather than separated by a pit or confined to a different part of the stage.

“It’s one of the only spaces in New York that you can really fit a chamber orchestra with dancers, and at the same time, have this huge dance space to exist in,” Schumacher explained, elaborating on the choice to stage the production at Gelsey Kirkland. “Everybody is very present, working together to create this art.”

The resulting effect highlights the intimate connection between the musicians and the dancers during the performance. Placed next to each other, the choreographic elements within the orchestra itself — the way musicians move to play a part — complement the dancers’ gestures.

“It’s very unique in the way the orchestra is mostly facing the dancing area,” Schumacher said. “It’s like the music’s being passed on from the musicians to the dancers, who are then carrying it visually forward.”

Ballet Collective in "Faraway," choreographed by Troy Schumacher. Photo: Erin Baiano.
Ballet Collective in “Faraway,” choreographed by Troy Schumacher. Photo: Erin Baiano.

In addition to works revived for the occasion, the program features three world premieres. The first, choreographed by New York City Ballet’s Preston Chamblee, opens the production, followed by the program’s second premiere, a composition by Chistina Courtin and Alex Sopp. The last half of the slate is dedicated to the third world premiere, “Faraway,” a physically demanding work composed by Judd Greenstein and choreographed by Schumacher.

And while each piece is tonally and visually distinct, the program coheres under a theme of the “Overview Effect” — the peculiar phenomenon of stepping back from something familiar and gazing at it from a distance, like astronauts looking at the Earth from a heightened place in the stars.

“I think that choreographically and compositionally, it’s very often that we look at the small minutia of our art forms and try to find inspiration and new pathways there,” Schumacher said. “But what happens if we use something really zoomed out as inspiration?”

When approached by BalletCollective to collaborate on the program, the Knights drew from their previous works that dealt with a similar concept. “I feel like there’s a lot of good synergy between these two organizations and people,” said Colin Jacobson, violinist, composer and co-founder of the Knights, “because actually that idea of the overview effect was the theme of — basically — our last album, ‘Azul,’” which centered on the ideas of either looking up at the stars or down at Earth from above.

The Knights in "Faraway." Photo: Erin Baiano.
The Knights in “Faraway.” Photo: Erin Baiano.

For her part, Sopp, who, in addition to composing for the program, plays flute in the orchestra, took a direct approach to the theme, using a Neil Armstrong quote as the basis to create, as Sopp noted, the “sweet little tune” titled “Entr’acte: Pea Pretty and the Blue.” “It’s about looking at the Earth from far away,” Sopp said of the piece. “And it’s actually very literal to the concept.”

The collaborative energy between the groups and the program’s theme reach a climax in Greenstein and Schumacher’s closing piece, which features a full cast of dancers and a large orchestra. Schumacher and his dancers utilize the entirety of the 80-foot deep stage for the work, which is even further elongated visually by a mirror at the back of the stage.

Outfitted in costumes based on the large-scale, Arctic-inspired pastel works of Zaria Forman, the dancers in Schumacher’s piece move in an organic manner that feels otherworldly. In some sections, the movement feels as if time has sped up, making it so that the dancers come together and break apart in a controlled, kinetic frenzy. In other moments, the choreography progresses in slow drags, like slivers of ice peeling off of a glacier.

Ballet Collective in "Faraway." Photo: Erin Baiano.
Ballet Collective in “Faraway.” Photo: Erin Baiano.

Greenstein’s score is equally arresting, creating swells of music that evoke cinematic scenes.

Pointing to the sheet music for “Faraway” on his tablet, conductor Michael P. Atkinson highlighted the visual elements at play within the composition itself.

“I think it’s a new high water-mark of imagination for him — you can see all the shapes and everything,” Atkinson said. “What winds up happening with what he does with harmonies is that you get these flashes of that incredible blue that you only see in a glacier.”

During a dress rehearsal run of the piece, the sheet music comes to life, animating the images of cascading notes into five choreographically distinct movements, all set on a stage washed in blue light. As the score progresses in fine layers, the collaboration pulls back to reveal every person in their own part, overlapping to form a whole that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

“It’s about allowing influence into your art form from other art forms,” Schumacher said, noting the significance of collaboration. “It’s about letting someone take you someplace you wouldn’t go on your own.”

“Faraway” runs at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center through Oct. 26. More information and tickets can be found here.

Top Image: "Scorpio Desert," choreographed by Preston Chamblee. Photo: Erin Baiano.