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The Traps of Pop Music

When you make a dance, you should never use music that’s too familiar. Or should you? Many of us were taught in composition classes to stay away from popular music. Yet choreographers have been using rock ’n’ roll or other pop music since the 1960s. For our Choreography Issue, we decided to poll dancemakers who have taken the plunge, either by their own choice or by commission. We asked them why they chose their music and what kind of challenges it presented. Interviews were conducted by Abigail Rasminsky, Jen Peters, Charlotte Stabenau, and Wendy Perron.



Charles Anderson
Artistic director, Company C Contemporary Ballet

Music used: bluegrass arrangements of Led Zeppelin songs for Song Remains the Same

Why this music? To many people, Led Zeppelin is part of the soundtrack to their lives. It reflects who we are as people in society now. It’s also fun to choreograph to because the beats are more driving, and as a choreographer, I’m about movement. And the dancers loved that music because they’ve grown up with it.

Pitfalls: It can become really cheap if you start trying to choreograph to the lyrics or make direct references to them. I’ve started many a work to pop music that moved me, but I saw that it was turning out clichéd, and cut it.

Audience: On the purely artistic side, it wasn’t the most sophisticated work I’ve ever done, but rarely have I had crowds go so crazy. When I put on a performance, I try to bring something to the audience that is provocative, or that they might not have thought that they wanted to see. But you also have to bring something that they know they’d love to see.

Next up: For the spring season, I’m doing a work to Chet Baker. I’ve fallen in love with his rendition of songs like “The Thrill Is Gone” and “My Funny Valentine.” The way he sings them, the way he plays them—it’s so passionate. 



Christopher Bruce
Associate choreographer, Houston Ballet

Music used: The Rolling Stones, for Rooster; premiered in 1991 by Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, given its U.S. premiere by Houston Ballet in 1995

Why this music? I grew up with the Rolling Stones, and decades later I had a crazy idea to weld their music into a dance score. You don’t need to use classical music to choreograph. Popular music relates more to who I am and what I feel about life.

Pitfalls: I knew this idea could be a trap, so I decided to stick religiously to the theme of each song, but also relate it to the overall idea. I use the same craft as when I make a classical dance. With Rooster and the Stones, the emerging theme was male chauvinism. For example, the first song is “Little Red Rooster,” so I worked with imagery from the lyrics and did simple gestural movements and walks. I created an analogy between farmyard roosters and dressed up young men going out on the town, like the first dates of my teenage days in the ’60s.
Audience: The Stones never lost their audience; all generations appreciate and enjoy the music, so people from 7 to 70 start dancing in the aisle when they see it.

Next up: I am setting Rooster this spring on Alabama Ballet, and in the fall on The Washington Ballet.

Margo Sappington
Freelance choreographer

Music used: Prince (for the Joffrey), Indigo Girls (for Atlanta Ballet), William Shatner (for Milwaukee Ballet)

Why this music? Rock was the music of my generation, it was part of what was exciting at the time. And it was part of the Joffrey legacy to bring something new into the ballet world. For Billboards (1993), with music by Prince, I chose songs that were instrumental.

Pitfalls: I try to find the emotion and the root of the song, not illustrate the lyrics. That’s when it loses its depth. You keep it in a place that’s challenging for the dancers, that doesn’t become flip.

Audience: Billboards brought people to ballet that had never come before. With my Indigo Girls piece at Atlanta Ballet in 2001, they played live. Their fans networked and came from 50 states. There were people who’d never seen ballet who got together and rented a bus. During the six performances probably 20 percent of the audience came to every show. At the stage door there were screams and flowers. It was a fabulous experience for the dancers because they weren’t used to that kind of adoration.

Next up: I’ll be going to Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. I’m setting Step Out of Love, which I did at Hubbard Street, on five dancers, and it’s to rock music by Stephen Forsyth.

Trey McIntyre
Artistic director, Trey McIntyre Project

Music used: The Beatles, for The Washington Ballet, 2006

Why this music? The Washington Ballet commissioned A Day in the Life; it wasn’t something I arrived at on my own. I had to filter the Beatles music from my own perspective. I don’t approach music unless I have something to add. 

Pitfalls: Pop music is difficult because it has an implied narrative. I tried not to exploit the music; I wanted to illuminate a new viewpoint. Beatles music is ex­tremely crafted with gorgeous melodies and interesting lyrics. Their songs are familiar so the dancers had to remove their natural reactions. They had to stop coloring the movement and remove clichés. Every movement had to become new.

Audience: Seeing audience responses to the piece was exciting. There isn’t a reference point in most people’s lives to ballet, but they connect with this music. We performed in Hungary and the audience was dead silent until the end: They went crazy and clapped in unison! It was the first time we did an impromptu encore.

Next up: My newest project uses a collection of Chopin preludes and 200 bowling pins, and I’m having a blast figuring out my associations with the pins! It premieres on our spring tour, tentatively titled Ten Pin Episodes.

Matjash Mrozewski
Freelance choreographer

Music used: Bruce Springsteen for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, 2004


Why this music? In Pittsburgh, people felt a connection to the Springsteen music I used for Straight Life. Part of the reason companies do programs with pop music is to encourage ticket sales. But as a choreographer, you think, Are they coming for a concert with dancers? How much do they care about what they’re seeing, because they’re listening to music and having an onslaught of memories, and seeing some nice steps to it?

Pitfalls: Pop music is often in 8s: You have the chorus and the verse, so structurally it’s uniform. And when you’re putting together a whole piece, you’re dealing with a five-minute song, so it can become episodic.

Audience: When companies do programs like this, I wonder whether we’re attracting people to the ballet, or simply creating a need for more jukebox ballets in order for people to go down memory lane. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s pretty delicate.

Next up: I am developing a show for kids with the Art of Time Ensemble in Toronto, based on Harry Nilsson’s 1971 album, The Point! We are aiming for a show in December, but funding is still in the works. Also the National Ballet School will be remounting excerpts from my ballet 30-Minute Beauty Makeover to be performed in Holland and Toronto.

Garrett Ammon
Artistic director, Ballet Nouveau Colorado

Music used: David Bowie, Queen, INXS, The Velvet Underground


Why this music? Pop music takes you back to a time in your life. Even if you don’t have a personal relationship to a song, there’s often a cultural memory. I love that. That’s a fun thing to play with and an exciting tool to use to pull people in.

Pitfalls: I try to use all the information of the song without getting stuck to it, or pandering to the lyrics or theme. Of course, sometimes there are happy coincidences. I try to forget the lyrics as I’m choreographing, but they still feed it. At times the movement does coincide with the lyrics, but only for fleeting moments, which is wonderful.


Audience: I created Love of My Life to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”—that’s a risky thing! Audiences have memories of that song that matter deeply to them. As a choreographer, you have to be OK with saying something completely new, and hope the audience is willing to take the journey with you. If you own it, generally they will look at it from your perspective.

Next project: Somewhere American, Vol. 1: Lakewood, CO, April 16–18; Denver, CO, April 23–25.



To see video of pop pieces by Trey McIntyre, Margo Sappington, and Charles Anderson, click here!


Photo of Charles Anderson rehearsing Ashley Ivory by Rob Goldring, courtesy Company C

«So There’s This Swan…
Rant & Rave: Don't We Count?»
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