Andy Toad, courtesy Kelly

The Music That Makes Raja Feather Kelly Feel Like He's In His Own Movie

For choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, music is simple: "There's good music and there's bad music and I love good music and I love to hate bad music."

But, true to form, Kelly—whose past few months have included choreographing the Skittles Super Bowl musical and earning one of our first-ever Harkness Promise Awards—had some surprises up his sleeve when he made us a playlist he describes as "for moody Geminis who work over 12 hours a day and need a playlist that can shuffle and never disappoint."

Though the playlist has some whiplash-inducing twists and turns—from Coheed and Cambria to Carly Rae Jepsen to Missy Elliott to Schubert—there is a through-line: "Music that makes you feel like you're in your own movie. I love walking through the street feeling like I'm on a runway, living my best life."



When He's Listening to This Playlist

"This is my anytime, whatever I need playlist. I listen to a lot of music while I'm commuting and to get myself in a creative space. It's all very cinematic. It feels like music that is the underscore for a scene; the soundtrack for my life."

Why He Can't Stop Listening to Childish Gambino

"I listen to Gambino if I'm feeling a little bit angry or want to have a groove. I get a brand new story every time I listen to it. It's so complex and so loaded that I love listening to it over and over again."

On His '90s Nostalgia

"I'm always wishing for the '90s to come back. I'm nostalgic for a time without cell phones and Facebook and Instagram; when movies were really doing something for me that Instagram and Facebook and cell phones do for us now."

Why He Loves Lana Del Rey's Music

"It makes me feel like I'm in my movie moment. It allows me to be in an emotional state if I need to contemplate something. It makes me feel sexy."

Where He Finds New Songs

"I do Shazam, or I have the sound designers I'm working with make inspirational playlists for me. I'm very invested in pop culture so knowing what's out there is part of my research."

On How Music Drives His Choreography

"All my work is based in soap opera and '90s movies so there's a song for every moment and I'm always trying to find the right one. But I'm trying to make sure my work as a choreographer is doing the work and the song isn't doing the work."

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Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

How Do Choreographers Bring Something Fresh to Music We've Heard Over and Over?

In 2007, Oregon Ballet Theatre asked Nicolo Fonte to choreograph a ballet to Maurice Ravel's Boléro. "I said, 'No way. I'm not going near it,' " recalls Fonte. "I don't want to compete with the Béjart version, ice skaters or the movie 10. No, no, no!"

But Fonte's husband encouraged him to "just listen and get a visceral reaction." He did. And Bolero turned into one of Fonte's most requested and successful ballets.

Not all dance renditions of similar warhorse scores have worked out so well. Yet the irresistible siren song of pieces like Stravinsky's The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, as well as the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, seem too magnetic for choreographers to ignore.

And there are reasons for their popularity. Some were commissioned specifically for dance: Rite and Firebird for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Boléro for dance diva Ida Rubinstein's post–Ballets Russes troupe. Hypnotic rhythms (Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel) and danceable melodies (Bizet's Carmen) make a case for physical eye candy. Audience familiarity can also help box office receipts. Still, many choreographers have been sabotaged by the formidable nature and Muzak-y overuse of these iconic compositions.

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