A few months ago, Justin Peck, the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, entertained his daughter with a set of building blocks while listening to the first part of Caroline Shaw’s a cappella Partita for 8 Voices. He thought about how to approach the densely packed music, layered with speech, vocal effects and wordless harmonies, when he noticed that his daughter’s toy set contained eight shapes. Together they began to move the shapes to the music.
“We came up with the structural pattern with which the ballet begins!” said Peck, referring to “Partita,” his new work for New York City Ballet, which premieres Thursday, the opening night of the company’s postponed winter season at Lincoln Center.
Set to Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition and performed by eight dancers in sneakers, the ballet features brightly colored hanging fabric sets designed by Eva LeWitt, daughter of artist Sol LeWitt, whose “Wall Drawing 305” was an inspiration for Shaw’s score.
“It really felt like a back-and-forth conversation, with Caroline incorporating text from Sol LeWitt’s instructional drawings, then interpreting that work and bringing Eva in to create her own response to the music and dance,” Peck said. “The whole experience feels like the most vibrant I’ve been a part of in terms of creative, artistic expression.”
In a joint video interview a week before the premiere, the three makers discussed their reactions to each other’s work and how practical parameters and pedestrian elements were important to every aspect of the ballet.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Justin, you came up with the project?
JUSTIN PECK Yes. When I first heard ‘Partita’, after Caroline won the Pulitzer, I was completely blown away. Sometimes as a choreographer you hear music and you think: let’s choreograph it tomorrow. But with this work, I felt I had to live with it, listen to it steadily for several years. I consider it one of the most important compositions of the past decade, so I didn’t take it lightly.
In April of last year I mustered up the courage to contact Caroline, with whom I had worked on small things. She really supported the idea and I felt that City Ballet was the place to do the work because the dancers have such a musical sensibility.
How did you discover Eva’s work?
COCK As I listened and researched Caroline’s process a lot, I noticed that many of the texts had been taken from LeWitt’s instructional drawings. Down that rabbit hole I stumbled across Eva’s work, and I was instantly blown away. You can kind of feel her father’s influence, but it’s so uniquely her own voice, and has a dimensionality and theatricality that I thought would work well in a live performance.
Caroline, “Partita” alludes to baroque dance suites in the names of the sections: Allemande, Sarabande, Courante, Passacaglia. Did you think it was a score for dance?
CAROLINE SHAW I didn’t literally envision it being choreographed, but it felt really visual and like I was choreographing with sound rather than dance.
When I wrote the piece, which lasted three summers, I was a freelance violinist and singer in New York, as well as guiding dance classes all over the city. So all those counting and rhythms were whirling through my brain at that moment. Dance really made me fall in love with music again.
I played a lot of baroque violin pieces at the time and Bach uses all these dance forms, so it felt like a great starting point. Every movement in “Partita” does relate to the original baroque dance, but they are abstractions, containing seeds of those original meters and feelings, but moving on quickly. It was a playful experiment with form and a conversation with the past.
Eva, were you influenced by the score? How did you approach the design?
EVA LEWITT I had done an exhibit at the ICA in Boston, and Justin really liked the asymmetric, random quality of that work, so I took that as a freedom to paint with sculpture and fabric. I wanted to leave room for the dancers, frame them, but also be quirky with colors and spacing, and I was definitely influenced by the energy of ‘Partita’.
Gravity is very important in my work; the pieces have to really hang, that’s what creates the shapes, defines the circles and shapes. That is so connected with dance, with people moving through space, and also with the voice. Those gravity universes are important to all of our art forms.
Justin, does each dancer correspond to a voice in the score?
COCK Not exactly. I thought a lot about that and created a very meticulous, outlined text that deciphered each voice and how the dancers could hear and count it. It was a level of preparation that I have never done before. There were times when I thought one dancer might match a certain voice, but it became too much of a limitation. Vocally, it’s eight individual voices, and I think it feels choreographically like eight individual dance voices.
Actually from the game with the building blocks I have notes that say ‘Harrison’ [Coll] is the lime green rhinoceros, Taylor [Stanley] is the yellow leaf”, and so on!
You’ve created movement with a signature loose-limbed, grounded quality that seems different from your previous work. Was this because of your sense of music?
COCK Yes, the music is so different from anything I’ve worked with before. But it also came from what Eve made. There is so much in her work that is about the tension and harmony of the line versus the curve. That very simple, everyday visual quality really influenced the choreography. There’s so much in it that’s geometric, and about those tensions and harmonies.
Why did you decide to put the dancers in sneakers?
COCK I went back and forth for a while as to whether it should be in pointe shoes or sneakers, and decided sneakers felt good. The physical language feels to me like modern Americana folk dance, where I can draw influences from outside of ballet and work them into dance language that feels very topical and deeply personal to me as a New Yorker. There’s a comfort and recognizability that I think communicates a different experience for the audience.
SHAW I really like the decision to do it in sneakers because it relates to the way I wrote the music. Everything in it comes from speech, and the spoken word is not pompous. I wanted to use natural ways of speaking, all the sounds we make, just American voices, and turn that into music. It is something pedestrian, molded into something else.
LEWITT I like that idea and the practical parameters of making something for the stage. Much of my work is made of fabric and plastic, and has an inherent influence, and I realized I could create an environment for the dancers where the set also had movement.
COCK The music, the dance, the design, it all feels moving, never static. That is the quality we wanted to achieve. We’re doubling down on what makes live performance so great; that it happens in the moment, that you feel the energy coming from the stage, the performance. This is the closest I’ve come as an artist to having that quality on all fronts.