Orchestra invites dancers to spring into Stravinsky

13 January 2022

Western Australian Youth Orchestra is injecting some bounce into its repertoire, in a collaboration with choreographer Scott Elstermann that sees six dancers performing on mini-trampolines. Nina Levy jumps in to learn more.

West Australian choreographer Scott Elstermann never imagined that his first commission to make new work for a local company would come, not from a dance organisation, but from an orchestra. And a youth orchestra at that.

A headshot of Rebecca Erin Smith a young woman with bright blue hair cut in a long bob with a blunt fringe. On her face are bright blue winged beetles. She looks up to one corner.
Rebecca Erin Smith

But this month the Western Australian Youth Orchestra (WAYO) will present two short new works by Elstermann in collaboration with WAYO.

The two pieces will be presented at Perth Concert Hall, 22 January 2022, as part of the organisation’s “Rite and Revolution” program, originally scheduled for July 2021 but postponed due to lockdown disruptions. One work is created to local composer Rebecca Erin Smith’s Foreigner or Foreigner, the other to The Rite of Spring, the famed Stravinsky work.

So, how does a youth orchestra come to be collaborating with a dance artist?

“Rite and Revolution” is the first instalment of Merge, a new initiative that sees WAYO seek out, commission and produce collaborations with artists from other artistic disciplines.

A head shot of Scott Elstermann, a young man with short blonde hair and blue eyes. he smiles at the camera.
Scott Elstermann. Photo: Stefan Gosatti

“It’s designed to further the cultural and performative experience of our members,” explains Smith, who is also the business and development manager at WAYO, and the driving force behind the initiative.

“If they do go on to become professional musicians, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to just be sitting in an orchestra their whole career.

“They’re going to need to diversify, they’re going to need to have some experience in other fields. So collaboration is incredibly important for any young artist in any medium.

“The whole point of the Merge initiative is that it’s new; it is fostering something a bit different and broadening the scope of our orchestra.”

This image shows rehearsals for the Rite and Revolution collaboration. Pictured is six dancers, lying in a kind of caterpillar formation. They are lying on their backs, legs apart, and each dancer is sitting between the other dancers' legs. In the background, Scott Elstermann watches.
Scott Elstermann and dancers Ella Watson-Heath, Giorgia Schijf, Ellie Matzer, Kimberley Parkin, Yilin Kong and Briannah Davis, rehearsing for ‘Rite and Revolution’. Photo: Rebecca Erin Smith

While it’s not unheard of for local classical music groups to work with dancers (Perth’s HIP Company, for example, have recently collaborated with choreographer Andries Weidemann), opportunities that involve a commission are few and far between for WA choreographers, even within the dance sector.

“To the best of our knowledge, we’re the only orchestra in Australia to seek out and self-fund a brand-new dance work from an independent choreographer,” says Smith. “I have not found evidence of a similar organisation that has done that; it’s either been externally funded, or it’s been the initiative of a dance organisation and an orchestra coming together.”

And it’s a big deal, financially, for a company like WAYO – a “small-to-medium” rather than a major arts organisation – to make this kind of commitment.

Rebecca’s scores are incredibly cinematic and nuanced. They usually contain a wonderful arc and irregular time signature, which are both great to play with choreographically.

“There are sacrifices that are made in order for us to engage an independent artist like Scott,” continues Smith. “But it’s integral to our ethos as an organisation that we value independent makers of art. The entire reason behind doing this is that we’re contracting independent artists.”

Elstermann is not the only independent artist involved in the project. “There is also my composition that’s being performed, and we’ve got an independent lighting designer and 25 guest freelance musicians” says Smith. “We are making a concerted effort to support our peers. And to add an extra little boon we’ve partnered with Support Act – the music industry’s crisis relief charity – for this show as well. We’re donating $5 from every ticket sold to Support Act.”

Though Smith works for WAYO, her involvement as a composer was actually Elstermann’s pick.

“I love Rebecca’s work,” he explains. “Her scores are incredibly cinematic and nuanced. They usually contain a wonderful arc and irregular time signature, which are both great to play with choreographically. When WAYO asked me to select another score for the show, I didn’t think of any other composer.”

The score that the pair chose together is Foreigner or Foreigner.

“It is beautiful,” says Elstermann. “It’s in three distinct sections that are so varied, opening themselves up to an interesting contrast to The Rite of Spring. There is a swell and undulation in the sound that goes hand in hand with physical movement, compared to the quite harsh Stravinsky sound. Using Rebecca’s score thus became a very deliberate choice to ease the audience into what they’re going to witness next.”

What they’re going to witness next will be The Rite of Spring like they’ve never seen it before.

The Rite of Spring is iconic, from both a music and a dance perspective. “Even though it’s over 100 years old, it’s still known to be a bit cutting edge,” observes Smith.

… while the 120-piece orchestra play ‘The Rite of Spring’ in the Perth Concert Hall, six dancers will perform to selected excerpts of the iconic score on mini aerobic trampolines, flying into the air…

“And The Rite of Spring has been done by some of the world’s most renowned choreographers, with interpretations that are still memorable to this day,” adds Elstermann.

Elstermann has a connection, of sorts, to The Rite of Spring, in that one of the most famous dance works to be created to the score is by the late Pina Bausch, the seminal 20th century choreographer. In 2018, Elstermann became the youngest ever international recipient of the prestigious Pina Bausch Fellowship, as well as the first Australian to win the honour.

“It’s a very daunting task, as a choreographer, to tackle The Rite of Spring in just two weeks [of rehearsals], especially as some people will connect the dots between Pina Bausch and me receiving the Fellowship, but it is a welcome challenge” he says.

“Instead of looking at The Rite of Spring in terms of nature or trying to recreate Pina’s version, I’ve decided to look at ‘spring’ as the mechanical structure and ways that I can amplify what the orchestra is doing.”

“So while the 120-piece orchestra play The Rite of Spring in the Perth Concert Hall, six dancers will perform to selected excerpts of the iconic score on mini aerobic trampolines, flying into the air, giving both the dancers and orchestra time to shine.”

And Elstermann can’t wait to share his version of the famous work with audiences.

“It is so exciting to have this opportunity to create work with a full orchestra, especially at this point in my career. To have that level of trust and belief from an organisation like WAYO is incredible.”

“Rite and Revolution” plays Perth Concert Hall 22 January 2022.

For more information about the Merge initiative head to the WAYO website.

Pictured top are some of the young musicians and dancers who will be performing in ‘Rite and Revolution’. Photo: Andrew J Clarke Photography

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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