Robert Spano is in rehearsal. Barefoot.
His blue jeans and loose-fitting shirt are not simply a matter of casual dress versus formal; rather, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is doing things he does not do on the podium. He is moving across the floor with dancers and happily taking direction rather than giving it.
The directions are from choreographer Lauri Stallings, founder of the collaborative performance group, glo (a name recently shortened from gloATL).
They are rehearsing the two-part, interdisciplinary performance project cloth in the center of the Goat Farm Arts Center’s spacious Goodson Yard, which will have four consecutive days of performances, September 11 through 14.
It is only the second time Stallings and Spano have collaborated. In the first one, a 2011 performance set to Kaija Saariaho’s ballet score Maá, Spano was in his familiar role as conductor, but this time he is instead involved as both composer and pianist.
The total work is in two sections: “Cloth” and “The Tower.” The original solo piano music for “Cloth” is by Spano, who will also perform it. For “The Tower,” music will be Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” transcribed for four-handed piano and percussion, performed by Spano and pianist Pedja Muzijevic with ASO percussionists Tom Sherwood and Charles Settle.
The project’s genesis goes back to the unusual staging of Maá at Symphony Hall. On the second evening, Spano suggested to Stallings that they do “The Rite of Spring” sometime. Ultimately, the two decided to mount a production at Goodson Yard, which Spano had never seen. Spano fell in love at first sight with the 115-year-old utilitarian industrial building, with its high, load-bearing brick walls supporting heavy timber trusses that span the entire 57 feet of its width with nary a pillar intruding within the structure’s 140-foot length.
“I was blown away by it,” says Spano “I immediately wanted to write music to play in that space. Then we started talking about, what would that be?”
He says he has already been working with ideas about music inspired by “classical elements” — earth, air, fire and water. “We started talking about . . . how the elements relate to each other, how they mix, mingle and interplay,” he continues. “We talked about elemental creatures, sylphs and gnomes. Then we got really attracted to that idea of weaving, how things weave in and out of each other, which led to the notion of describing what we’re trying to do as cloth.” They had also discussed origins of words, how they weave, develop and relate as languages evolve.
Conscious that his composition would be on the same program as “Rite,” Spano deliberately chose for his music to be in clear contrast to Stravinsky’s in language and mood. It opens with an older, nine-minute piece by Spano, “Under Water.” It is followed by nearly a quarter hour of freshly composed music, doled out to Stallings a minute at a time and still in the final stages of being composed in the days before the performance.
If there is any common bond between Spano’s new music and Stravinsky’s “Rite,” it is simply that architectural model of a series of “discreet, small sections that make a larger whole.” There the similarities end. Better comparative inspirational models, says Spano, are the collections of short piano works of Robert Schumann, such as “Carnival” and “Davidsbündlertänze.” But unlike Schumann’s musical portrayals of contrasting fictional personalities, Spano takes his creative cues from particular things in the world — a vine, a wave, a spark, a breeze, a mountain, a rainbow — that represent a weaving of primal, elemental forces.
“I haven’t played with the dancers yet,” says Spano. “In generating this music I’ve been thinking of them all the time. I’m sure, nonetheless, I’ll get all sorts of wonderful surprises. I really get fueled by Lauri’s imagination.”
As Stallings received each section of Spano’s new work, she could sense that he composed with dance in mind. “It’s complex, but there’s familiarity; it’s fluid,” she says. “Inside that complexity, there’s a lot of folding and bending into the next space with body and bone.”
Watching the dancers in a recent rehearsal, her interpretation is clear. They stand, facing one another, and literally fold their bones at the joints, curving and arching their spines off the vertical line. With ease, they move in and out of the ground, free from tension but sensing the bones’ weight and the skeleton’s architecture. With that utility is a shimmering generosity and fine-tuned awareness of the body in space.
“Robert challenges you on this beautiful plane of existence,” says Stallings. “And we challenge new parts of him.” She describes their meetings. “It’s quite gregarious, us together. And very lively. There’s books everywhere. And I’m always grateful when he says, ‘I trust you.’”
Neither Spano’s score, nor its late deadline (a week before the preview) challenged Stallings more than Stravinsky’s conception of an ancient Russian pagan sacrifice.
“It’s painful,” Stallings says, having spent hours analyzing its irregular meters and unpredictable accents so her dancers could understand them. “My language and my sense of rhythm and heartbeat is in itself its own nature. So mixing that with Stravinsky is maddening for them.”
Stallings believes that Stravinsky wrote his work for the community, and that the young composer may have expected the visceral and riotous response to its 1913 premiere. On this belief, Stallings envisioned a way to engage community while perhaps capturing a sense of primal force and naïve simplicity: animal head sculptures made by dancing and nondancing performers.
Sculptor Audrey Morrison led workshops for these folks and oversaw the mask-making process. Simple materials, such as burlap, cardboard and newspaper were used and painted in various shades of white. Morrison encouraged hybrid forms, such as a head with ram’s horns and an iguana’s tail, to capture the beauty and rawness of Stravinsky’s music.
Similar materials appear in a 20-by-20-foot sculpture, suspended over the stage, while the interior walls of Goodson Yard will be covered with white limestone powder. At times, stage lighting will stream through windows from the building’s exterior.
Also suspended close to the trusses, above and encircling the performance area, will be a cycloramic screen on which film by Micah and Whitney Stansell, shot for the occasion, will be projected in what members of the production team have deemed a technical tour-de-force. To better view the screen, special seating upon which the audience can recline and look upward have been constructed — curved wooden frames with padded vinyl covers.
Despite harsh criticism, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s original interpretation of Rite (which also included animal heads) was deemed as boldly modernist as Stravinsky’s score; a string of major choreographers have since tackled it. Stallings admits Rite is a challenge, albeit an invigorating one. “There’s just a part of you — the animal in you — that understands it completely.”