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Moravian College Dancers and Jazz Musicians prepare for a one-of-a-kind “Collaboration”
Bethlehem, Pa., November 1, 2007— For the first time, Moravian College will present a concert combing the beauty and grace of dance accompanied by a 17-piece modern jazz big band. The Moravian College Dancers and the Moravian College BIG Band will perform “Collaboration: A Jazz Ballet in Six Movements,” written by Tony Gairo, artist/lecturer at Moravian College. The concert will be held on Friday, November 16, and Saturday November 17, at 7:30 p.m. in Foy Concert Hall located on the Hurd Campus in historic Bethlehem, Pa.
Neil Wetzel, assistant professor of music and director of jazz studies at Moravian College, likes to think big. He directs the appropriately-named Moravian College BIG Band (capitol letters mandatory). Last year he organized Moravian's first jazz vespers concert, an event that featured student and guest musicians, the jazz faculty ensemble, and the 82-voice Moravian Choir under the direction of associate professor of music Paula Ring Zerkle. And for his next project, he wanted an even bigger challenge. His idea: to bring together the BIG band and the Moravian College Dancers to perform a work commissioned for the occasion. “I wanted something new, something different,” says professor Wetzel. “And frankly, I can't think of any college that's done something like this before.” The result is Collaboration, a six-movement jazz ballet making its world premiere at Foy Hall on November 16 and 17. The jazz/ballet genre combo is a provocative creative choice taken by professor Wetzel. Both recall jazz's roots as dance music and encourages listeners to reconsider what jazz music can be. "People might hear this and ask themselves if this is really big band music,” professor Wetzel commented —“Yet it's very grounded in the jazz tradition.”
To create the music, professor Wetzel turned to Tony Gairo, artist-lecturer in jazz saxophone, jazz flute and jazz history at Moravian. As an active composer and performer who writes original compositions for his 17-piece modern jazz band, Gairo was eminently suited for the commission and enthusiastic to participate. He says the project held its share of difficulties for him. “It's like nothing I've ever done,” he says. “Sometimes the writing went incredibly smoothly, at other times I was enormously frustrated.” A key moment in the composing process came when Gairo took a cue from the work's title. “We decided to call it Collaboration,” he says, “and I noticed that the word has a rhythm I could use: da DA da DAA dat. It's a recurring theme.” Gairo's score, completed about a year ago, features musical styles ranging from medium-swing to jazz waltz to tango to minimalism. Both he and professor Wetzel say it's a demanding opus, and a challenge to which Moravian's student musicians have risen admirably. “It's hard music to learn,” professor Wetzel says, “but the students like Tony a lot, and they like his music. They were really up for the challenge.” Gairo adds, “There were a couple of spots where I could have gone a little easier on them. This project is a bold idea. It's a risk, but we're trying to educate young musicians and dancers here, and I think risk is a great educational tool.”
For her part, choreographer Mary Anne Hoffman, artistic director of the Moravian College Dance Company, was excited from the get-go. “One of my chief goals is to collaborate with other departments at Moravian, and we have such a wonderful music department here.” She and assistant artistic director, Reina Faith, began working on the choreography in June, and they, too, emphasize the ambitiousness of the project. “It's stretched Reina and I far beyond what we ever thought we could do,” Hoffman says. “It was scary at first, but we've really fallen in love with the music.” Her dancers had some complex moves to master—the jazz aspects of the performance call for intricate movement and unusual time changes. “We asked the dancers to come in and start working on it over the summer, and they've been incredibly dedicated,” Hoffman says. "When everything comes together, with the band and the dancers on stage, the lights, the costumes…it's going to be very exciting.” Professor Wetzel couldn't agree more. “I hope people realize how special this is,” he says. “It's not the kind of thing that's done very often. This is something people may never see or hear again.”
Moravian College is a private, coeducational, selective liberal arts college located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Tracing its founding to 1742, it is recognized as America's sixth-oldest college. Visit the Web site at www.moravian.edu.