Following the success of her Of Rage and Remembrance, Kathryn Posin was commissioned by the Milwaukee Ballet to create a new work. The following is an article written in 1993 by Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal prior to the premiere.
The composer writes the music, then the choreographer makes the dance. That's the way it is done in ballet.
Not so with Stepping Stones which the Milwaukee Ballet will premiere Thursday. Stepping Stones is the product of a close and unusual collaboration between Kathryn Posin and composer Joan Tower. They began by mulling over the project at a series of working lunches in New York City. Then, before a note of music was written…
"We went up to Joan's house in Annandale-on-Hudson, and yes - we danced in her back yard," Posin recalled in an interview at the Milwaukee Ballet Studios.
The memory of that frolic amused Posin a lot and embarrassed her a little. Later, when I raised the topic with Tower, she sent a peal of laughter ringing through the phone lines from Annandale, where she teaches at Bard College, to Milwaukee.
"Kathy did something, and I said, 'Wait a minute, why are you moving so fast?' It seemed like so much information was coming out so quickly. She looked at me and said, 'Well, what would you do?' I'm overweight and everything, but I tried," Tower said.
"As a composer, I've always thought of myself as a closet choreographer. Texture, space, speed, direction, all the words that apply to dance also apply to music.
"I'm a natural kind of a dancer. When I was 9, we moved from Westchester to Bolivia. My nurse was an Indian, and I used to go with her to celebrate saints' days, which came about every other day. We celebrated by dancing.
"I actually choreographed the first three minutes of the ballet, although Kathy tells me that she has changed it a lot."
Posin saw it this way: "Joan came out raising her arms and flowing like an Isadora Duncan reject. She had never collaborated with anyone before - she must have missed the '60s. She loved it.
"We struggled over a few things, but we never fought. Part of her wants to control my choreography, and part of me wants to control her music. Part of each of us is grateful that we can't do either."
Posin, 50, and Tower, 52, connected by chance. Posin, of New York City, first went to John Corigliano, whose Symphony No. 1 she set for Milwaukee Ballet (Of Rage and Remembrance) in November 1990. Corigliano was too busy. He told Posin to call his publisher, Schirmer, "because they have lots of good composers."
She did. It happened that Corigliano's contact at Schirmer was about to have lunch in New York with Tower. He invited Posin to join them.
"Joan was a loud, vibrant, funky lady, very outspoken and interested in feminist issues," Posin said. "We decided to do a piece about women, but we had to make this terrible admission: Oh no, we both like men!
"We decided to look at women's identity as we have known it - we were not Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer. Sill, we had to acknowledge the anger and resentment that even the happiest woman will have."
They stepped onto Tower's lawn with that foggy notion. Their ideas came clear gradually, in the process of creating the music and the steps.
"Joan said, 'Let's put them on pedestals,' " Posin said. "I said, 'Let's put them on stairs.' "
The stairs stayed, and came to represent stages in a woman's development. The single protagonist split into a half-dozen, each representing a stage of life and each accompanied by another woman representing an "inner self."
"We had a hard time coming up with a title," Posin said. "We tried, 'Herself Divided,' 'Passage of a Woman,' 'Woman Rising,' 'Her Way' - they all sounded like manuals on how to get through menopause.
"The ballet sounds very psychologically laden, but you can see it in a purely abstract way. It's highly structured. I'm very structural and mathematical in my choreography."
"I'm intuitive," Tower said. "I don't trust systems at all. Even A-B-A can be a straitjacket. I composed serial music for 10 years, but I've gone totally the other way. We have this vague suspicion that intuition has no real depth. That's a dangerously wrong idea."
Tower sketched the first three minutes - the germinal material from which the other 18 minutes grew - to match the dance that she and Posin made up in her back yard. They settled on a six-part scenario: introduction of the six-bodied protagonists and six inner selves, a hopscotch session (Tower's idea, says Posin), and encounter with six men, a trio for women, a love duet, and a celebratory finale for all 18 dancers.
Then Posin went back to New York and tried out movement ideas, and Tower went to her piano and started writing.
"The music worried me," Posin said. "It seemed an unexplained progression of moods - beautiful, but willfully going its own way. I worried about capturing the wildness of the music within the form of ballet. And I worried because I couldn't count the rhythms she wrote. I was so neurotic about it that I hired two ballet dancers in New York, just to see if they could dance to it."
Tower cheerfully talked me through the six connected movements, playing piano through the phone as she went. Posin is right - the rhythms are as potent and tricky as those of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which this score fleetingly resembles.
"Rhythm is at the center of my music," Tower said. "Kathy talks about how difficult this is to count, but the rhythm is simpler than what I normally write."
Posin found hat dancers could track those rhythms - once they stopped trying to count them.
"This ballet has given me renewed respect for the instincts of dancers," Posin said. "In the end, they just kinda, sorta do it. I've learned to trust intuition and animal impulse more than counts. I think that's where real dance lies, anyway."
Since the initial performance of the work Posin has made some changes to the work. "Joan and I watched a video from '93," Posin said. Shifting into theatrical high dudgeon, she went on: "Do you know she had the nerve - the nerve - to sit there and say: 'That's not good enough! My music's doing a big climax, and what are you doing? Nothing!' Of course she was right, but that's because I choreographed to the two-piano version and you can't hear [the] climax. So there's one big change."
Stepping Stones was first mounted on BalletMet Columbus in February of 1996 and has since entered the repertoire of Hartford and Cincinnati Ballets.
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Joan Tower, composer
Joan Tower, one of the best known female American composers of our time is also an accomplished pianist and teacher. Her music is bold and energetic, characterized by striking imagery and novel structural forms.
Ms. Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York; September 6, 1938 but grew up in South America. She took courses in composition with Brant and Calabro and studied the piano at Bennington College, receiving her B.A. in 1961. She followed Bennington with studies at Columbia University where her instructors included Luening, Beeson and Ussachevsky. She earned her M.A. from Columbia in 1964 and her D.M.A. in 1978.
In 1969 she co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players in New York, which won the prestigious Naumberg Award for Chamber Music in 1973 and until 1984 was their pianist. The group was dedicated to the playing of contemporary music and Ms. Tower wrote several pieces for them. In 1972 she began teaching at Bard College, NY where she is still a professor. Her first orchestral work, Sequoia (1981), quickly entered the repertoire of symphony orchestras including those of Saint Louis, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, and the London Philharmonia. The work has also been used for a ballet of the same name choreographed by Mark Godden for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 1989. Ms. Tower was composer in residence for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 1988 as part of the Meet-the-Composer Orchestra Residency program. Silver Ladders was premiered for that orchestra in 1987 and garnered her the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 1990. Perhaps the piece that brought most attention to her name is Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, which has been played by over 100 different ensembles since its premiere in 1987. Since this work she has continued a series of uncommon fanfares, the Third Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman being commissioned by Carnegie Hall for its centennial in 1991. The world premiere of the work was televised internationally in May of that year.
Ms. Tower's talents have also been recognized with a 1976 Guggenheim fellowship and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in 1974,1975, 1980 and 1984. Additionally she has received a Koussevitzky Foundation Grant in 1982, and an Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award in 1983.
Ms. Tower has embraced several styles of composition over her career, her early works recall the pointillistic and rhythmically complex serial music she played with groups in the 1960s, and were scored exclusively for solo instruments or chamber ensembles. From these works emerged the energy and shaping of a music line, color, the exploration of musical space and the balancing of compositional gestures that define her more recent work. Her music often produces evocative pictures of nature, not without wit.
Ms. Tower was commissioned to write the music for Stepping Stones (1993) as part of Meet the Composer grant awarded to Milwaukee Ballet. Kathryn Posin selected Ms. Tower as her collaborator on the project following recommendations from her music publisher G. Schirmer.
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