Dance Academy Students Present the World Premiere of Contour and Flight

Dancer and choreographer Janie Taylor collaborates with composer David K. Israel in Contour and Flight, a newly commissioned piece premiering this December featuring eight Dance Academy students.

Trudl Zipper Dance Institute’s Dean Margaret Tracey sought to infuse this year’s Winter Dance Celebration performance with a commissioned piece from L.A.’s rich local talent. Reaching out to Janie Taylor, a member of L.A. Dance Project and a former instructor for Colburn Dance, presented an exciting proposition to mix contemporary with classical ballet influences.

Dean Tracey expressed her appreciation for Janie’s “extraordinary artistry as a ballerina … and I support amplifying the female voice in the language of classical ballet and in the exploration of the use of the pointe shoe.”

At the age of 15, Janie studied at the School of American Ballet before she joined the New York City Ballet where she danced for close to 16 years. After some time abroad when both she and her husband worked at the Paris Opera Ballet, they returned to the States where Janie joined L.A. Dance Project, a company founded by Artistic Director Benjamin Millepied.

With a short timeline for the commissioned piece, titled “Contour and Flight,” Janie reached out to collaborate with composer, David K. Israel, who has a long history of writing scores for dance, such as for Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and the New York City Ballet. Having studied guitar in high school with Philadelphia-based jazz guitarist Pat Martino, David later studied composition with Leonard Bernstein while simultaneously studying dance history with the late Truman Finney, who had danced with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet.

In discussing the influence of performing arts, Janie said that dance is “something I’ve always had to do—it’s just inside me, a part of who I am. And it’s something you have to love because of how physically and mentally demanding it is. I always enjoy the effort it requires and the challenges it presents. Dance gives so much back to you.”

David recollected having started composing at the age of five, though his first “official” piece was written at the youthful age of 12, an homage to Jimmy Hendrix titled “Fly Through the Wind, Jimmy.” And in referencing the pull of the theatre, David said, “It is like a temple, and the experience is spiritual and nourishing for my soul. When I’m not in the theatre or creating for something that’s going to be in the theatre, I feel sort of empty.”

Turning to the collaborative process of composing and developing choreography for “Contour and Flight,” Janie listened to a few pieces David had existing and identified one that resonated with her vision. “The music itself had given me ideas about what I could do with it,” said Janie. However, there still needed to be an accompaniment, and David accepted the challenge to compose a piece in a compressed amount of time based on general direction from Janie, such as tempo, length, tone, and emotion.

“One thing I thought about a lot for this piece was that these students are studying the Balanchine style of ballet and what that means. And I wanted to make something where they would be able to showcase all of those skills that they’re learning from this technique, … and I wanted them to be able to exercise that very specific musicality that they’re learning. I think that David’s music lends itself very well to the dynamic and speed and musical changes that are also usually in the music of a Balanchine ballet. So, I thought it would be a really good fit to use his music for this.”

David shared that the first movement he started writing was based on Vivaldi’s Sonata for Violin and Harp. He wanted the new music to feel as homogenous as possible with the first movement already composed.

“I knew that it was going to have a slightly more modern feel to it, but not completely divorced from the sort of baroque inspirations. So, you get a lot of early baroque kind of chord progressions, but with syncopations and odd time signatures and all kinds of wonderful jazzy stuff that just wouldn’t have been possible in Vivaldi’s day,” said David.

For the choreography, the juxtaposition of Janie’s classical ballet training and the freedom and boldness that L.A. Dance Project provides has enabled Janie to leverage both in her choreographic process and decision-making for “Contour and Flight.”

“Different choreographic processes I have experienced, including those while dancing with L.A. Dance Project, have opened my eyes to how many ways there are to choreograph and that there are no rules at all as to what choreography could be. Whereas in my mind before, there was a very specific way that choreography would happen,” said Janie. “This was very illuminating and opened up my mind to endless possibilities.”

For “Contour and Flight,” which features eight Dance Academy students, Janie was excited to choreograph her first piece for Pointe, as this was a divergence from the type of work experienced at L.A. Dance Project.

“Pointe was a huge part of my life dancing and something that I love. So, it was exciting to get to have that be a part of what I would make,” said Janie.

In discussing her choreographic process, she said, “A lot of times, I hear steps. I think in some ways, I feel like the dance is there already. It’s like archeology, and I have to uncover it and figure out the puzzle…. I use a lot of imagery which can come from anywhere, from my everyday life or more fantasy type images and ideas.”

Working with the Dance Academy students to prepare “Contour and Flight,” Janie stated, “They were all really great and were open to trying things. They didn’t seem like students … they seemed like young artists who are ready to be in a company.” She further noted, “It was really exciting to allow them to have their individuality and include them in talking about the steps, letting them have a voice [such as] how do we make this smoother?” Overall, Janie hopes the students “gained valuable experience being part of a choreographic process. [Noting that], as a young dancer, you maybe don’t get a lot of that experience until you’re in a company.”

“I had so much fun with them, which was a big part of it too—for us to also enjoy ourselves. And I hope they gained experience that will help them wherever they go from here,” said Janie.

“Contour and Flight” receives its world premiere in the Colburn Winter Dance Celebration 7:00 pm performance on December 16.

Learn about all the events for the Colburn Winter Dance Celebration and purchase tickets.