11/01/07

A ONE-OF-A-KIND COLLABORATION
Moravian musicians and dancers create an event like none other.

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: bring together the BIG band and the Moravian College Dancers to perform a work commissioned for the occasion. "I'm always looking for ways to put Moravian on the map," professor Wetzel says. "I wanted something new, something different. 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 premier at Foy Hall on November 16 and 17. The jazz/ballet genre combo is a provocative creative choice, professor Wetzel says, that both recalls 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 this really big band music," professor Wetzel says. "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 easer 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 says. 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."

Collaboration: A Jazz Ballet in Six Movements will be performed on November 16 & 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Foy Hall. More information here.