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NYU Steel Makes History with the New York Theatre Ballet

World Premiere set to Philip Glass’ Piano Etudes at the New York Live Arts with the New York Theatre Ballet

New York, USA - NYU Steel has been turning heads and breaking new ground for a while now. Unafraid to challenge the norms and traditional Western music and performance thinking - from its inception, NYU Steel has simply been a game-changer. This week (February 24 to February 27, 2016) NYU Steel is being featured in the World Premiere production of the New York Theatre Ballet performing to Philip Glass’ Piano Etudes, choreographed by Steven Melendez and Zhong-Jing Fang.

New York Theatre Ballet dancers with NYU Steel

Under Jonathan Haas, Director of the NYU Percussion Program—himself a virtuoso timpanist—NYU Steel in a relatively short time has gone on to become one of the respected performance-oriented music ensembles not limited by superficial limits and boundaries. The impressive growth and success of NYU Steel have been well documented by When Steel Talks (WST). In 2011 NYU Steel recorded Philip Glass’ Piano Etudes with arrangements done by their musical director, the multi-talented Joshua Quillen.

Josh Quillen and Jonathan Haas
Josh Quillen and Jonathan Haas

The union of NYU Steel with the New York Theatre Ballet is a continuation of the vision of Professor Jonathan Haas to capture the imagination of an international audience while challenging the members of NYU Steel to be innovative, creative and expressive.

The audience is in for a fantastic treat. WST caught the performance at the dress rehearsal.  In a word - impressive.

The collaborative effort of choreographers Steven Melendez and Zhong-Jing Fang brings an added dimension to the Philip Glass’ Piano Etudes not ever experienced before through dance. Their choreography is both highly effective and triumphant. This was no easy feat. They were presented with and met the challenge, producing a world première work utilizing a music medium they were both unfamiliar with - that being the steelpan family of instruments - for a major piece. The range of motion and movements embraced the tonal qualities and colors of the steelpan while remaining congruent with minimalist principles of Philip Glass.

NYU Steel and New York Theatre Ballet

Pan, Glass and Dance - storytelling at its zenith. The sound and the visuals capture your attention from first note and sight, stimulating your imagination. It’s fresh, it’s new and something the world should experience. One feels moments of joy, love, sadness, loss, separation, integration, exclusion and inclusion, as the performers skillfully both change and provide different vantage points for the audience - depending on what you are focusing on - showcasing a masterful command of space that allows for multiple storylines.

NYU Steel music director Josh Quillen’s voicings and ‘spreads’ across the family of steelpan instruments come alive in his arrangements. His command of orchestration for the steel ensemble played a large part in quickly providing a comfort zone for the choreographers in the area of developing creative possibilities for the story they wished to present. Josh understands that the Pan is alive. The steel orchestra is at all times part of the conversation and dance.

Go and live the experience. It will be unique and personal. The vision of Professor Haas has come full circle.

Asked about his overall approach to this unique collaboration in an interview with When Steel Talks, Steven Melendez said in essence that he approached the project with a blank slate. “I kind of let the music speak to me a little bit.”  And he enjoyed every minute of it with fellow choreographer Zhong-Jing Fang. “We did everything together,” says Steven of the collaboration.  Fang’s take? “I felt very much, almost like giving birth; I felt very much connected.” From her perch in the audience, Fang was on top every aspect of the production, even while Steven himself danced on stage as a member of the cast. Moving around and interacting with the dancers during the rehearsal Fang explained “I wanted to make sure that everything worked, maybe even the parts that nobody would notice.”

This is the first time that either choreographer worked with a steel orchestra. Asked if he would consider doing so in the future, Steven—a faculty member of Ballet School New York, in addition to being Van-Lier Fellowship recipient and a 2012 Clive Barnes Foundation Award Nominee—said “You know, if you had asked me that before we started this project, I would have been a little bit skeptical, because I had not had that experience before – I had never heard a steel orchestra before – sort of a fear of the unknown, a little bit. But now that I know what it is, and what it is capable of, the nuanced sound it can produce, I think it is something interesting for the future.”

Zhong-Jing Fang agreed wholeheartedly with Steven. “I think so too! I was very excited to be here….the [steel] drums, together with the performers – it actually connected so well, and it gave a great opportunity to the imagination [for choreography].”

New York Theatre Ballet director Anna Kepe-Haas was equally thrilled at the collaborative outing of ballet and steel, enthusiastically sharing just before the dress rehearsal, how happy she was that it all came together.

But for Jonathan Haas, it was a continuation of his vision being solidified.

“I dreamt of it, but I never, necessarily, thought that it would, be a reality.” Those were the words of Haas both before, and repeated at the end of the evening’s showcase. “What I believe, that I anticipated would happen - which happened – as we’ve discussed before, there’s a frequency that Pan creates that gets into our brain and for whatever reason, is incredibly uplifting. But when it’s combined - with the emotional content, with the visual – that oftentimes it changes from ecstatic, to deeply emotional and touching. I think that the Pan is the key that unlocks the emotions, that, with other instruments, do not have the immediate response and connection, which makes the Pan, still, in my estimation, one of the most unusual musical instruments in the world….I thought it [the New York Ballet and NYU Steel accompaniment] was just the most perfect combination.”

The collaboration of Philip Glass, Steel and Dance is indeed unique and historic - and quite consistent with the great works and presentations of the steel orchestra music genre’s giants like Pat Bishop, Dr. Geraldine Connor and Dr. Dawn Batson that have previously highlighted Pan and Dance.

In speaking with Dr. Batson—Professor of Music, and Chair of Visual and Performing Arts, Florida Memorial University—about the NYU Steel/New York Theatre Ballet collaboration, she noted in part that “Pan music like the music of the ancestors, has never been divorced from dance. Sometimes we in the Western world try to create false boundaries and put music, art, literature and dance into separate compartments, and only with expressed permission do we allow them to mingle. True expression tells a story and in the artistic world of Pan all the elements combine to tell that story.”

Dr. Batson’s distinct experiences with this combination go back several years, including in the late eighties with a show at Queen’s Hall in Trinidad called Pamberi Chimurenga. The production showcased a number of works with choreography by Andre Largen and professional dancers from Trinidad and Tobago. “Some of the works performed were: Aaron Copland’s ballet “Billy the Kid”; an excerpt from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”; the Congolese “Missa Luba” with choreography by Andre; and an original piece of mine called “Finale” also choreographed by Andre,” explains Dr. Batson.

“Geraldine’s [Connor] Carnival Messiah, of course, stands out in many ways inclusive of dance. Pat [Bishop] with Desperadoes and Lydian Steel performed the musical scores of ballets. Pat, incidentally, was the person who suggested doing “Rite of Spring” to Pamberi [Steel Orchestra].”

“I think that the work of NYU Steel in carrying on the tradition of pan and dance is to be highly commended. The performance of pan is a dance in and of itself.”


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