Doves Diaries 1: Co-creating a new ballet

“How’s the ballet going?” was by far my most received question of 2023. So, for my first set of updates here on Music Patron, it feels right to create a short series about the process of composing my first full-length ballet score.

In the first instalment of what I’m nicknaming ‘Dove Diaries’, I’m taking a deep dive into the starting points of my score for 2-act ballet White Doves (2023) and sharing some thoughts on what it means to be a composer in a choreographer-composer collaboration today.

In White Doves rehearsals, August 2023. Image by Gareth Heron.

New ideas amidst global chaos

I sprung into 2020 optimistically, freshly graduated from my masters’ at Trinity Laban in London and ready to figure out this career thing. Having opted to write and produce a one-act ballet for my final assessment the previous summer, I had now recovered and felt ready to tackle a new dance piece. However, as we all know now, 2020 had other plans for just about everyone.

The premise for a new ballet for and about Belfast came the blurry first weeks of what we remember now as Lockdown 1’ Irish choreographer and classical dancer Ruaidhrí Maguire and I had recovered from the creation and premiere of our narrative ballet Dear Frances (2019), which told the story of Frances Shea and her deadly encounter with the Kray twins in 1960’s London, scored for chamber orchestra. I’d been writing two concert pieces commissioned for premieres that summer, both of course now postponed. In the midst the seemingly never-ending weeks of daily walks and one-way system supermarket shops, the conversation of what our next work might be emerged. It became obvious that a next ‘big’ piece would only feel right if it told a story from home. As Belfast isn’t represented anywhere in the classical dance canon, we asked where is Belfast’s ballet? And I posed the vital question- and might it have birds?! Little did we know that a three-year labour of love and dedication was ahead of us full of collaborating, funding applications and a touch of chaos.

Finding birds and navigating collaboration

Both born ‘post’-Troubles, sometimes referred to as the Good Friday Agreement generation, we wanted to use our voices to reflect on ideas of peace and identity from our stances from this end of the conflict and as ‘cross-community’ collaborators. With dance and music as our respective forms, we had an opportunity to blend abstract with narrative to paint both fact and fiction, and found the first marches for peace and the formation of The Peace People in 1970’s violence-torn Belfast as our starting point.

Very early thoughts (2020)

This is where our creative roles begin to get a little blurry. The conventional choreographer-composer model is choreographer-led, meaning that the structure, story and arc of a new work is usually led by the choreographer, more often than not with the support of a dramaturg and other artistic collaborators. The composer’s role, conventionally, is just that: to compose. They are provided with a storyboard and guidelines of timings and desires, and they provide a score to fit those requirements.

It very much depends on the collaborative energy with who I’m working with, but within this project, the creative pattern between myself and Ruaidhrí strayed from the aforementioned norm. Where this comes from? I’m not sure. Perhaps from co-conceptualising the central idea, or perhaps having worked together already? Perhaps I’m not cut-out for hiercarchical sub-ordinate models? From the get-go we were sharing structures, scenes, characters, and blending the lines where movement meets music.

Our base idea for White Doves was that we’d combine earth and sky to paint a semi-historical, semi-ethereal realm. Amid a plethora of ‘Troubles’ theatre and art, our work would communicate the impact of trauma and violence, without actually staging those events of living history.

Crafting a pas de deux

This leads us to Spring of 2021. The concept at this point, was a series of drawings, newspaper articles and very rough musical sketches. Supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, we kicked off our experiment of creating our bird characters and trying to understand how they would relate to our story. Working with two dancers, Ruaidhrí began building material for the works’ central pas de deux (duet). This is a conventional starting point for a large-scale work, as the duet’s main material often goes on to influence physicality throughout the piece.

Research and development phase (April 2021). Danila Marzilli and Daniel Morrison.

Instrumentation for the work was undecided, so I began by creating a string quartet version of this central duet. Whilst our collaborative patterns fluctuated much in flux throughout the 3-year creation, we worked together very closely on this early core central section, working live in the studio with the dancers, interspersed with moments of solitary creative time.

The same moment in rehearsals (July 2023). Danila Marzilli and Leigh Alderson. Image by Amelia Clarkson.

I am emotionally led in my writing, at least in those early stages when I’m really finding my way. My driving word for these characters was ‘sky’. I made several first sketches which were focussed on lofty string harmonics at rapid speeds. For the most-part, these were borderline unplayable and entirely unidiomatic! As Ruaidhrí further developed his movement language with the performers, we defined a structure for the duet which created a sense of coming together, as the Doves represented two sides finding a new way to communicate, representing two communities learning to live alongside each other.

The same moment again, in performance (August 2023). Danila Marzilli and Leigh Alderson. Image by Norm Keilty.

Somewhere between this stage, several further research and development phases and finishing the score in 2023, I revised the finer details. Much to my surprise, the overall structure, phrasing and harmonic language of this duet stayed almost exactly as originally conceived.

Listen to White Doves – Pas de deux (2023) on SoundCloud

The result of the music may be heard on Soundcloud, with my version created specifically for string quartet

In my next update, I’ll delve into my process for writing the musical material, including musical inspirations, the evolution from sketch to score and include some clips from performance. Talk soon!

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