Your Career: When Music Meets Movement

December 31, 2014

Commissioning work from a composer

Choreographers often think of their tools as space, time, shape and motion. But as choreographer Stephen Petronio puts it, music rules: “You can shut your eyes, but you have to put your fingers in your ears to stop listening.” He regularly commissions composers whose work he admires—like Laurie Anderson and Rufus Wainwright. “The more different brains work on something, the more exciting it is,” he says.

For any choreographer, commissioning music can open your mind to new artistic possibilities. But no two composers work the same way and each collaborative relationship is unique. It’s essential to understand how to find the right composer for the project and approach the process.

Choosing a Composer

In today’s digital age, we benefit from the abundance of music at our fingertips. There’s no harm in blindly contacting a composer, but Petronio thinks it’s wiser, especially in the early stages of your career, to work with artists you know. “Start with people you can screw up in front of,” he jests. Cultivate a network of collaborators by attending local music concerts, festivals and social events.

When you approach a composer, discuss any connections the dance has to his or her music, the venue it will be performed in and how the project will be mutually beneficial. In addition to diversifying the audience and increasing exposure for both parties, collaborating could open up other funding opportunities, says Scott Winship, director of grantmaking programs at New Music USA, which provides grants to support the creation and performance of new music.

Collaborative Process

Composers rarely enjoy working on a project when the choreographer dictates every detail of the music. “Always give the composer the freedom to move. You can’t work in a box,” says Andy Teirstein, a composer who has worked with Petronio, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Buglisi Dance Theatre, among others. Successful collaborations encourage the music to develop as part of the choreographic process. “You have to be willing to wrestle around with it. Let go of control, but don’t let go of your vision,” says Petronio.

Communication is crucial. It helps to know some basic music terminology and to discuss the expressive aspects of the work, such as color, temperature and emotional dynamics, suggests Teirstein. While composing music for Locomotor, Mike Volpe/Clams Casino used words from Petronio’s choreographic notebook to generate sounds. Feed the composer’s creative needs and stay open to how your ideas take root in the music.

Also invite the composer to rehearsals. Watching dancers enact your ideas is often the simplest way for composers to translate your musical motives. The music may change, so avoid becoming attached to a specific draft. Teirstein finds it useful to create four or five short music samples and have the choreographer choose one to develop. Try new music during rehearsal before rushing to judgment. “As a dancer you hear differently when you’re moving to music than you do just sitting and imagining,” says Teirstein.

Terms of Agreement

Have a written contract signed by both parties before a single note is written. Once when Petronio commissioned a composer to create 20 minutes of music for a new piece, the composer initially created a score that Petronio describes as “perfect the way it was.” But it was only eight minutes long. What could have been a collaborative nightmare was easily resolved by referring to the contract.

According to Winship, there are three main types of agreements. The collaborative agreement may establish a timeline for the project and specifies the artists’ responsibilities and details pertaining to the score, such as length and instrumentation. The commissioning agreement spells out when the composer will deliver the work and the terms and breakdown of payment, “which can be split up into multiple payments based on different developmental stages of the piece,” says Winship. Composer fees do not necessarily include expenses like hiring live musicians, contracting a sound engineer and renting a recording studio. Lastly, the licensing agreement addresses copyright issues: Is the composer associated with a publishing house that collects royalties? Do you have permission to use the music only for live performance, or can you use it for promotional purposes, like a video on your website?

Reap the Benefits

Working with a composer is an opportunity to step beyond your comfort zone and traverse new choreographic territory. “I collaborate to shake myself up, to bleed the boundaries of what I’m doing and to have fun with people,” says Petronio. “Otherwise life is very lonely in the theater.”


Free Resources

For more guidelines, read “Commissioning Music: A Basic Guide” and “Music for Dance: Composer-Choreographer Collaboration” at



Demystifying Music Rights

The process of securing rights for non-original music is twofold. There are composition rights from the publisher (or copyright owner), and recording rights from the record label for the particular recording of the composition. Music for dance involves specific composition rights called “grand rights.” “Simply put, it’s the right to use the music for live performance,” says Rachel Peters, associate director of grand rights licensing at Boosey & Hawkes.

Even if a dance performance is free to the public, you must seek rights to use the music. Unanswered attempts to contact a publisher or record label do not give you permission. “When the performance is discovered, the choreographer (or company) will be asked to complete retroactive licensing and pay a fee. Further legal action is also a possibility,” Peters advises.

To submit your rights request you can either complete an online form or send a letter. Include name of composer, title of music and dance, type and size of performance venue, number of performances and ticket prices—and describe if and how you plan to alter the music. Dance/USA provides a sample request letter online. “Grand rights fees are negotiable, and the budget of the organization and many other factors are always taken into consideration,” says Peters. “The more we know about the performance and the company, the easier it is for us to arrive at a fair fee.” —HS