Encount3rs with ballet: Kevin Lau steps up to the stage

Kevin Lau Photo: Bo Huang

Towards the end of work on a musical score for the ballet The Little Prince, Kevin Lau and Guillaume Côté had a meeting and made a decision.

“What if I wrote the music first and wrote it completely without a subject to anchor it. There were some parameters we discussed about what we wanted the music to sound like. As the choreographer he had to be able to respond to the music in order to do the dance.”

“He was excited about doing something very different from what we did with The Little Prince, which had an existing story.”

“Initially the music was to be anything but Little Prince related, we were so immersed in the project, sometimes you need a breath of fresh air.”

Lau says that Côté has an unique and interesting movement vocabulary and in the new work, Dark Angels, Côté had things he wanted to explore. He wanted music designed to support that.”

What that meant was Côté wanted Lau to write something that was hard-edged and more rhythmic, with more repetition at its core.

“He talked about (the industrial rockers) Nine Inch Nails. That was something I didn’t know very much about so I found myself listening to all of the Nine Inch Nails albums in my car.”

There are three broad movements in Dark Angels. It was conceived in a symphonic way, he says.

“In the version we are hearing in April, the first and third movements are quite relentless and very very aggressive. There is a lot of percussion especially in the finale. The percussion section of the orchestra will get a workout.”

There are two halves to the middle movement: one is lyrical.

“That is rare within the piece and it comes out as a surprise. But then that lyricism is twisted into something quite sinister. Actually there is a moment in the middle of the symphony… I wrote it so it would be almost un-danceable. Everything else is so rhythmic there is a section that is ambient, and it turns out that he responded to it really well.”

Lau hasn’t seen much of the choreography. Cote keeps creating right up to the last minute.

“I’m excited to see what he comes up with.”

Lau is relatively new to working with dance.

“I love working in it but it was not something I deliberately aimed for by any stretch. It’s something that came about because in 2012 Guillaume sent me an email asking if I wanted to work on something.

“I didn’t know him and I wasn’t going to the ballet very often. I mentioned his name to my wife and she said ‘Guillaume Côté emailed you? You have to meet him.’ I said I’d do it and then after meeting him, I started to go to the ballet more often.

“I fell in love with it. There are so many variations within it. There are a couple of musical conventions that seem to fit the glove of ballet. But they are always breakable.

“On the first project I erred on the side of being too free. I had seen enough ballets at that point that I thought anything could be set to dance. I wrote music that I wanted.

“And then I moved a little bit back from that. There are some forms of music that do work a little bit better and I wanted to at least respect some of the conventions.

“Doing things without a pulse is always going to be somewhat problematic. I tend to be somewhat impatient in my development of material and so I had to clamp that instinct down a little because I was writing for dancers. It helps to build a dance structure over something that repeats.”

Dark Angels is quite dark, he says.

“I wrote that. There are elements of struggle within the piece and tension. He’s spoken to me of trying to push the boundaries of the human body. Hopefully the piece will be a good foil for that.”

“I like things that I haven’t done before. To a large extent, until a few years ago I hadn’t really touched the ballet medium, so this has been a joy.”

Lau’s work has been on view in Ottawa before. During last year’s Chamberfest, his work was played by the Afiara Quartet in a piece called Spin Cycle. Lau wrote a piece of music that was in turn handed to a DJ who turned into a work for turntable. Then the DJ handed Lau’s amended score back and he adapted that.

“That was an incredible project. I’m not a club-goer. The big challenge was to not water down our processes.”

Lau is by nature a boundary breaker. He likes sailing to the edge of the known musical world.

“I’m particularly proud of this one. I’m most excited when I’m pursuing something I haven’t quite mastered yet.”

For information about tickets and more, please see nac-cna.ca.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.