Last weekend, Dance Series Two opened at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. At Smuin’s Opening Night Dinner, the creators of Oasis spoke about the process of designing a new dance work. Check out our recap of the conversation below!
Beginning a Ballet
Artistic Director Celia Fushille met choreographer Helen Pickett years ago, when they both danced at the San Francisco Ballet school. After Smuin Ballet performed Pickett’s Petal in 2013, Fushille commissioned a new work from Pickett.
Around the same time, composer Jeff Beal’s agent wrote to Pickett proposing a collaboration between the two. Pickett was struck by Beal’s score for Last Call at the Oasis, a Jessica Yu documentary about the California water problem. As a native Californian, Pickett was struck by the relevancy of water. “The texture of the music kept moving back to the idea of celebration. If we celebrate something, we are often inspired to act on that inspiration.”
Developing a Score
Beal, also a native Californian, grew up playing the trumpet and shared how he discovered his love for composition: “I think every musician has a few “A-ha!” moments in their life. I remember playing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a great ballet with very difficult music. Right then it felt like the heavens opened up, and I knew I had to be a composer. I loved that the music was telling a story.”
After composing film scores for 25 years, Oasis marks Beal’s first venture into composing for dance. He said, “This is the first ballet I’ve ever composed! I told Helen, ‘I want to come over to your team now!’”
One of Beal’s favorite parts of composing for Oasis is that the music comes first. “Even though this is primarily Helen’s creation, she needs something to create to, and that’s the musical score. As a film composer, you’re the last person on-board the train. I come in at the very end, and help to tie it all together. Creating music for dance, that process happens in reverse.”
Beal spoke extensively about the inspiration behind Oasis. “I find the absence of something is often the most profound,” Beal said. “We feel that longing in California, when it hasn’t rained in months. When you suddenly have a downpour, there’s a sense of relief. Nature provides us with so many stories and narratives.”
Building the Team
Pickett recognized the need to work with talented collaborators in order to fully realize the possibilities of this burgeoning work. “We have this beautiful symbiosis of finishing one another’s creative sentences,” she mused. “For me, that’s one of the greatest creative situations you can hope for. It’s ever growing, spontaneous. Art is never ‘finished.’ We made changes up to opening night!”
Costume and scenic designer Emma Kingsbury first worked with Pickett on Camino Real, Pickett’s first full-length ballet for Atlanta Ballet in 2015. Kingsbury recommended lighting designer Nicholas Rayment, a peer from their studies at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, Australia, who had recently relocated to the U.S.
Kingsbury worked on the costumes and scenic elements from her studio in Sydney, using video calls to coordinate costume fittings in San Francisco. Kingsbury appreciated using video for fittings over still images, citing the importance of seeing the dancers move in the garments.
Oasis marks lighting designer Nick Rayment’s first dance production in the U.S. “Like music and sound, the lighting is a performance element of the design,” he said. “It coordinates with the pulse of the music or the movement of the dancers.”
Rayment commented, “We’re applying abstract nouns to this literal, everyday experience. We put our version up onstage, and hopefully that resonates with the audience. As a new father, I’ve been contemplating what it means to make the world a better place. I wish my son was old enough to see Oasis.”
New York-based video editor Matthew Burke weighed in on Oasis’ exploration into using video projection in cooperation with the lighting design: “We’ve learned a lot about how to shape video to accent the choreography and music, and to enhance it.” Burke particularly enjoyed collaborating with his mother, Artistic Director Celia Fushille.
Beal noted that Oasis uses projections of water droplets in slow motion over the opening prelude, a waltz. Kingsbury shot the sequence herself in Australia, but the video couldn’t be edited to the score until all the elements were in the theater. “Cutting a live show is much harder than editing a film,” said Beal. “When making a film, you have the luxury of immediately watching what you’ve created. With dance performance, we’ve had to wait patiently to punctuate what movement needs to be punctuated.”
Setting the Stage
Pickett spoke extensively about the need for space when creating a new work: “Editing is a crucial part of the creative process. You need time away so you can edit yourself so you can cut with impunity.” Moving into the theater over the past week, Pickett gushed about the excitement of the accelerated process: “You’re seeing everything new for the first time. It’s constantly forcing you to be in the moment, and develop.”
Beal expressed his excitement for the opening night performance. “In art, we’re at our best when we come together and have collaborative experiences. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Movement is such a primal thing; the body itself is an instrument. It’s so elemental, so pure. I love that with dance there’s no barrier between you and the movement—there’s something very visceral and powerful about that.”