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How We Did It: Creating the 18th-Century “Casanova” Via 21st-Century Skype

Northern Ballet’s “Casanova” premiered at the Leeds Grand Theatre on March 11, and opening night was the most amazing experience. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that many of us in the audience, onstage and backstage who worked on this show were in tears by the end of it.

I got a lot of questions from people at the post-show reception, and on Twitter, about how Kenneth Tindall and I created the ballet from a distance of 5000 miles over the course of a year. I was surprised at that because working remotely seems to be so common these days. But in the world of a ballet company I think they’re used to a composer and a choreographer working hand in hand from the same location, huddled together over a piano all the time, and it dawned on me that there might be a story here to tell that could also be an example of how to make “working remotely” a really good experience for both a composer and a choreographer. “Writing a full-length ballet” isn’t a job that’s widely available these days as arts budgets shrink more and more, so if you’re a composer who aspires to this sort of thing, or a choreographer who’s in the same boat, this is how we did it. Maybe it’ll provide a good starting point for your own collaborations. We were winging it but this is what worked for us.

To frame the experience: Kenny lives in Leeds and I’m in Los Angeles, which is an 8-hour time zone difference. We used Skype to communicate and I’ll get into the logistics of that below. So I’ll start out with a few questions that I got from many different people, and then I’ll work into what our process was like.

Did you and Kenny already know each other? Had you met in person before you got the job?

Yes and yes! In 2015 Kenny created a shorter work called “The Architect” and he licensed my piece “Architect of the Mind” to use as part of that work. When Northern Ballet was at the Linbury at Royal Opera House performing it, I made the trip to London to see it. I met Kenny before the show and we hung out and chatted for an hour or so. I loved his work. I remember one review saying that the piece felt “beautiful and desperate and urgent” – and it was just breathtaking. But I got a great vibe from him: he was so upbeat and positive and excited about what he had done. He definitely made an impression. 6 months later I was in London for a few meetings and he emailed asking if I had time to meet for a drink because he wanted to chat with me about an upcoming project. I thought that he might just want to license more music for something new, but that upcoming project turned out to be the full-length “Casanova” and he asked if I’d write the original score for it.

You’ve never written a ballet before: how did you get the job? Wasn’t that a little bit risky on Kenny’s part?

When Kenny asked if I’d write the score, my first response was “But I’ve never done a full length ballet before” (translation: I’ve never done a ballet before, period) and his response was, “Neither have I! Won’t it be fun?” At first I was just so flattered to be asked: when someone wants to hire you to write music for something, whether it’s a documentary or film or TV show or ballet, it’s exciting. Risky on Kenny’s behalf? The thought didn’t occur to me until I started to see the whole process unfold: set and costume design, lighting, staging, 3 different casts, a national tour… and all of this riding on the creation of the ballet itself, which is 50% dance and 50% music. I had a moment of “Whoooaaaa” when I realized everything that went into the production of a single full-length ballet. The amount of money that was being invested, the number of man-hours from everyone involved. THEN the thought occurred to me and gave me a bit of a panic. I put it out of my mind entirely though: by that point we were well underway on the score and were ticking along at a nice pace. This was the part where you realize, as the composer, that you need the choreographer right there with you every step of the way, partly to set the limits and to hold you to the overall vision, and partly to be a coach and cheerleader for you. Without choreography to look at — only a treatment and scene breakdown — you really are operating in the dark unless the choreographer is there with you the entire time. And when I did have the occasional panic moment, Kenny’s reaction was always “Relax, we’re doing fine. We’re right on schedule. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

The music didn’t sound like a traditional ballet, it sounded more like a movie. Was that on purpose?

Totally on purpose. My initial hesitation about the job – besides the sheer volume of music it involved – was that it was going to be a “ballet” in the formal (read: stuffy) sense of the word. And I didn’t know if I could effectively shoehorn my usual style into that mold. But Kenny didn’t want a traditional ballet: when we were chatting about ideas at our meeting he said that the feeling he wanted for the work was similar to my album “The Architect.” He wanted the music to be something instantly accessible that audiences would enjoy listening to and he wanted it to feel atmospheric and immersive. In his words, “If the audience leaves the theatre humming a theme and asking where they can buy the CD, we’ve succeeded!” His direction was, “I want it to sound like something you would write. Just stick with your instincts and I’ll probably like it. Don’t try to make it sound like someone else.”

Did you write the music to Kenny’s choreography directly or did the choreography come later?

He didn’t start choreographing until the score was finished, and most people were surprised when they heard that because the flow of the show was so cohesive. We worked off of his and Ian Kelly’s scenario with specific timings and that was about it. I did get to see some things along the way, like Chris Oram’s costume sketches and miniature models of the sets. So I had an idea of what the final look of the show would be, but my imagination didn’t even come close to the reality of it. The lighting, sets, costumes – the crew created an entire world onstage that was just breathtaking. Add to that the performances of the Northern Ballet dancers, who happen to be exceptional dance-actors, and it soon became clear that we were undertaking something very special.

If the choreography didn’t happen until the entire score was finished, how did the story and dance manage to flow so clearly?

That is the magic of Kenneth Tindall! And a result of his preparedness. I think our process was pretty tight and I’ll go into that below.

Was there a downside to working from a great distance even though you had Skype?

A little bit of a downside in that I missed out on the social aspect of the whole process. Little things like going out for drinks after work, or spending in-person time working together, or being in rehearsals when Kenny was actually choreographing. The bonding! Making show-friends! I did miss out on that but I think we managed to catch up during the week I was in Leeds for rehearsals. I spend my days in a little room by myself writing music, so any opportunity for social contact is always welcome!

Did you have to do a lot of rewrites or changes?

Some, but nothing excessive. I think that was down to our being very tightly tied to the scenario and timings. Now and then during the process I wasn’t sure quite what the scene was supposed to look and feel like or what direction Kenny was heading in, so I’d sometimes write 2 or 3 different options for a scene and would ask him “which flavor is closest to what you’re thinking?” Occasionally there would be changes to the scenario that required deleting some scenes or rewriting them to make them more concise. Once Kenny got into the studio with the dancers there were a few more changes. There were things like costume changes or set changes that meant he needed a little extra music to pull them through it, so we had a few of those near the end of the process as well. There’s something else worth mentioning here too: don’t get hung up on musical terms. If you’re a choreographer, don’t feel intimidated by “I don’t know what this is called in musical terms” — just talk about how it’s supposed to feel or what the effect is that you’re aiming for. Talk about the music in terms of colors and flavors and descriptives and don’t worry about trying to talk in classical music lingo. Most composers I know aren’t very fancy or precious about music, we just want to know we’re getting it right.

When you say “we wrote the ballet over Skype” do you mean Kenny was actually watching while you wrote it?

No, but I think that’s what a lot of people think when I say that we created this over Skype! I wrote in my own time and our very frequent meetings happened over Skype. We never once worked in-person, only over webchat. Working remotely is a very cool thing but it does take a lot of trust between collaborators, which is why I’d recommend that if possible you spend some time together in person first, just so you have an idea of the person that is your collaborator. Kenny needed to trust that I was working as hard on my end as he was on his. The face time was important because it made the work experience a continuing conversation rather than a back-and-forth over email. DO NOT COLLABORATE BY EMAIL! Do it as “in person” as you possibly can. You’re not just building a creative work, you’re building a relationship. Make that a priority. Give your collaborator reasons to trust you. Be present, be open to ideas, be excited for what you’re doing.

How did Kenny hear the music before Northern Ballet’s orchestra started working on it? What was he choreographing to?

This is the magic of modern technology. Using orchestral samples (mostly samples from Spitfire Audio), I recorded what’s called an “orchestral mockup” of the score. So I would send Kenny a recording that sounded like a real orchestra: this way he could hear exactly what it would sound like once we put it onto the players in the NB Sinfonia. This meant that he had something that sounded like a real orchestral recording that he could use for rehearsals. From the very beginning the dancers knew what the orchestra would end up sounding like. The old-school way of writing a ballet is that a composer would write something on piano and then give it to an orchestrator to flesh out, but I come from the film and TV world where you actually start with a full orchestral mockup.

How long did you have to write it?

I spent about 9 months writing the music. Finished New Year’s Eve 2016, and then did some adjustments in January and February while Kenny was still working on choreography.

Did you fight a lot? Was it like “Black Swan” but with choreographers and composers?

I had to include this question because someone actually asked me this at the post-show reception (!) and I laughed. I was tempted to make up some very dramatic story because I could tell that she wanted to hear something juicy, but the answer is just “no.” Kenny was a dream collaborator: I’ve never had an experience that good before. I think he knew that I was as excited about this whole thing as he was so our meetings were always fun and productive. He’s an all-around happy guy. He expects 110% from everyone he works with, but he’s all about the positive reinforcement. Sorry to disappoint, but there was no fighting or throwing martinis in each other’s faces over the computer screen.

What were your favorite parts once you finally saw it?

This was such a thrill: I didn’t get to see any of the ballet until 2 days before opening night. Once Kenny had the score, I was out of the picture until tech week. My favorite moment? It’s a 3-way tie: Dreda Blow in the pas de deux with Casanova and Bellino, Hannah Bateman in the pas with Casanova and Henriette, and that ending. The ending! Kenny wouldn’t tell me how he ended it, he just said, “There was only one way to really end it and I won’t tell you because I just want you to see it.” And he was right. I sobbed every time I saw it. It was powerful stuff.

And the most popular question of the evening on opening night….

Did you both coordinate wearing red sneakers on opening night?

Nope. Total accident. :) Great minds think alike?? (Actually… I hate dressing up. Hate. So my wearing red sneakers was sort of an act of protest. I couldn’t bear to put on the fancy shiny black shoes. My friend said, “Just wear the red sneaks, they’ll think you’re edgy or something.”)

The Process

In our first official Skype meeting, I thought it was important to lay down some ground rules so that Kenny felt free to say things like “this is the wrong music for this scene.” I came at it from the perspective of “at the end of all of this, we will be sitting in the audience on opening night and we want to know that we gave it our all.” I told Kenny that if he wasn’t happy with any part of the music that he had to let me know. No holding back, I wouldn’t take it personally, making changes were part of the game. He needed to feel like he could be critical of what I was writing without worrying about hurting my feelings. I think I reiterated this one a dozen times: you won’t hurt my feelings, I need to know that you’re liking what I’m doing. And if it’s not working, be direct and tell me so that I can make changes accordingly. This is especially important in a situation where there was nothing visual to actually write music to: I was scoring to a scenario and a time target and that’s a very ambiguous thing. We agreed that we wouldn’t do anything by email: everything would be done face-to-face because it was important that this was a conversation and not an email exchange. This really helped me, especially because we didn’t know each other very well and face-timing was key to building a relationship.

Kenny knew what he wanted out of each scene so each conversation started off something like, “We open in a church and the seminarians will come in slowly. It’ll be a little bit dark and moody, there will be some fog, and we need a slow build into something that’s almost like a religious fervor or frenzy – but not too frenetic, more like grand and beautiful. We’ll need about 2 minutes at the beginning that’s slow and quiet and scene-setting but then you can move into the actual music that will build up. We can have 2-3 minutes where the music builds and then we end at a silence before transitioning into the next scene, where the priest is talking to the congregation. The important thing for the opening is that we establish that this is Venice: so it’s moody and tidal and damp and gloomy.” Once that bit was done and passed my own “is it ready for Kenny to hear?” filter, I’d send Kenny the mockup and he’d either approve it and we’d move on to the next scene, or we’d tweak it and pick it apart over Skype. This is one of the ways that videoconferencing was a godsend: I could play things to him live and then say “do you prefer this___ or this___?” It was efficient and immediate. I loved it. Our meetings were more often about the characters and the story than the music itself, and then I’d go off and write something that I thought would be a good fit. There were so many elements to Casanova’s story that had nothing to do with his reputation as history’s most notorious lover: he was as brilliant as he was charming, but he was also vulnerable and had a dark side and it was those very human moments that yielded the best spots in the score.

There were parts that were more challenging than others, like the masquerade ball in Act One. This was an 11-minute cue that advanced our story by several different leaps so we had to look at this piece as a timline, along which multiple events had to occur until we reached Bragadin rescuing Casanova (and I won’t spoil that bit for you)! So that timeline looked like this in my notes:

Casanova auditions with the musicians in Bragadin’s Court (2:00 max but aim for 1:30); the masquerade starts and it’s a big group number that should run 7-8- minutes; we need a break in there where we have a romantic interlude (2:00 – 2:30) where Casanova meets and courts Manon, the cellist; they get interrupted and pulled back into the party; should ultimately build to what feels like a big ending (entire ensemble here) but then suddenly back off as the musicians are getting paid and people filter out of the party: don’t make a big showstopper ending that feels final or that leaves audience feeling like they should applaud. Set will be opulent: all dancers in black and gold, all masked. Seductive but fun, not dark but can have dark moments. Not scary-dark but delicious-dark.

We built the score day by day, scene by scene, making sure that once a new scene was scored, we were maintaining a flow and a certain pacing from the beginning through the end of that scene. Then came the next one. We always went back to the beginning and listened for flow after the addition of each new scene. Something I wasn’t aware of until I actually saw the show (the day before final dress rehearsal, two days before opening night – the first I actually got to see of the ballet itself) was how the music was the narrative arc. There was always enough space for the story to take place. And in places like the second act where we have different stories fading in and out on the same stage, in my world that just looked like:

30 seconds of Henriette after Cas runs off to meet Voltaire: 45 seconds of Voltaire when ___ (no spoilers, sorry!) then back to 15 secs of Henriette happy until her husband enters & :15 secs of that when ____ then we go black and light comes back up on Cas at Voltaire’s for a few seconds as he makes his way back to his apartment, 20 seconds max as he finds ___ and then we begin ____ music for max of 60 secs (aim for :45 tho) and then we’re into ____ scene

The flow came down to Kenny’s preparedness with the scenario: he had an outline with rough timings built into it. We had a massive amount of story to fit into 100 minutes of show, and that’s where Kenny worked frequently with Ian Kelly to hone the scenario and keep things true but also lose the things that weren’t necessary to the storytelling. Our first pass at Act One came in at an hour but needed to be a max of about 50 minutes, so we had to hone the story and the score at that point. Same with Act Two, which I finished in December as Kenny was beginning the choreography to Act One. Our first pass at Casanova clocked in at 2 hours but we eventually whittled that down to about 102 minutes. The end result was that the story was always moving forward but often took time to breathe where it needed to, and we had the space to create a few memorable pas de deux. There was a point after the score was completed where we had to add a few bits to the score to cover for practicalities like costume changes taking slightly longer than expected, or needing a little extra time for the set to move, but in each case that last-minute change provided an opportunity for a few more seconds of score to add to the arc of the evening. The most notable spot for me when I saw the show was the end of Henriette’s pas de deux where we hear one last iteration of her theme as Casanova cradles her on the floor. That bit was a last-minute addition for the sake of an appropriate transition and it turned out to be a really gorgeous moment in the show. Had it not been there we would have missed it. Now? I can’t imagine that duet without it.

As each act was finished, I provided Kenny with a fully-realized (fake) orchestral recording and that’s what he used to choreograph and rehearse the dancers. Simultaneously I’d send that act off to my orchestrator, Simon Whiteside, who would tidy it up and import it into Sibelius, the notation software that’s used to prepare orchestral scores. So while Kenny was beginning choreography and I was still working on Act 2, I was also proofreading the score for Act 1 as Simon finished portions of it. It was important that that step be accurate because come tech week, we’d only have a few rehearsals with the orchestra and what was on the page had to be detailed and succinct. The fewer questions the players have, the more time we can spend actually rehearsing! The completed score was then broken down into two different reductions: Simon Whiteside did a skeleton reduction of the meat of the score on 2 staves, like a piano score, and Chun the stage manager used that reduction to mark stage and lighting cues for the show. So all of the tech cues were written into the simplified piano sheet music. The second reduction was created by Northern Ballet’s John Longstaff who created a playable piano reduction of the full score that the company pianists would use during rehearsals. While Kenny was choreographing and rehearsing with the orchestral mockup recording, several other rehearsal rooms were being run by the ballet mistress and additional casts were learning the choreography to the piano version of the score.

At the end of it all, I arrived in Leeds and jumped right into the rehearsal process. While Kenny was in the theatre making sure the sets worked and setting up the lighting design with lighting designer Alastair West, I was in the rehearsal room with John Pryce-Jones, John Longstaff and the orchestra, tweaking the score in real time. It came together so quickly and before you knew it, it was our final dress rehearsal. I thought I’d be more nervous about opening night, but opening night was actually a relief because the work was done and I had a chance to sit back and just enjoy it. Writing the score for “Casanova” was an amazing way to spend a year of my life, and seeing it come to life on stage was pure joy.

Northern Ballet’s “Casanova” is touring the UK and finishes its spring tour with a run at Sadler’s Wells in London beginning on May 9, 2017.

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