Finding space

Out of Orbit Teaser PhotoHarvard Pops Orchestra and Harvard Ballet Company collaborate for Out of Orbit, which combines the delight of pops and the elegance of ballet.  

By Madeleine Tolk '19
Guest Blogger

John Williams’ Star Wars Suite, the cinematic soundtrack underscoring epic lightsaber battles and spaceship sequences, is not ordinarily associated with classical ballet. But the mash up of Harvard Pops Orchestra and Harvard Ballet Company for their collaborative show Out of Orbit, which runs March 31, April 6 and 7 at the Loeb Drama Center, is anything but ordinary.

This is the Pops and HBC’s first collaboration in 18 years. Each organization has a distinct production style and culture, and the groups hope to reach a wider range of audiences through their combined strengths and artistic approaches. The show involves a unique combination of music and choreography, aiming to explore our fascination with space, and by extension, the excitement and sometimes paralyzing anxiety that can come from living in a fast-paced, innovative society.

HPO and HBC members Photo: Joseph Lee
“Pops and Ballet are very different groups, and I think we each bring a very different element to the show,” says Leah Rosen ’19, Harvard Pops Orchestra co-president. “Ballet's priority is making art at a very high level, and the dancers  are absolutely fantastic at that. Meanwhile, Pops focuses on having fun with music—both for the orchestra and the audience. I think one of Pop's great strengths is that we make orchestral music very accessible to people who don't necessarily like or have had much exposure to classical music.”

Although Pops concerts usually involve more comedic and theatrical elements, Rosen says the orchestra has enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with new media forms and music styles through the HBC collaboration.

HBC similarly appreciates the unique energy Pops brings to the production. HBC co-director Mara Milner ’20 says collaborating with the orchestra has allowed the dancers to explore new choreographic possibilities and themes. 

“Not only does [working with a full orchestra] create a cohesive sound throughout the production, but it is also a fun process for all involved parties to work with live music," she says. "We wanted to combine forces with the Pops in particular because of the fun, unique nature that Popsies bring to their shows. We were excited to push the limits of what balletic choreography is thought of as being and introduce fun and sometimes comedic elements into our choreography in addition to maintaining technique.”

Each organization includes more than 40 student performers, and difficulties in obtaining a suitable performance space for such a large collaboration have prevented the groups from working together more frequently in the past. But with the Spring 2018 residency at the Loeb Mainstage, the groups have found a new, shared creativity. 

"Performing on the Mainstage in such a large collaboration has allowed us to add so many elements to our show that aren’t feasible in any other venue,” says Milner. “From building a set to making lighting choices, we have been able to work through all stages of the creative process and learned so much beyond dance choreography and techniques."

Musicians from Pops likewise feel this collaboration has allowed them to expand creatively and explore artistic elements beyond music and rhythm. Music director Allen Feinstein ’86 says working with dancers provides unique challenges for a live orchestra, since musicians need to be especially aware of the music’s speed, or tempo,  to match the choreography. “When working with dancers one has to be particularly sensitive to tempo—a dance often won’t work outside a small range of metronome markings,” he says. “A conductor often has to work with visual cues to start certain sections and coordinate special moments.”

To prepare for performing with live musical accompaniment, the dancers worked with specific recordings to practice maintaining consistent tempos.

This collaboration has also allowed each group to interpret music and choreography in original and innovative ways. Much of the musical repertoire in this show is not usually associated with ballet; however, Pops and HBC feel choreography allows for new interpretations of the music and provides opportunities to highlight musical motifs and conceptual themes.

This partnership has also influenced each group’s creative processes, allowing musicians and dancers to work together in producing thematic interpretations. For example, Leah Marsh ’19, one of Pops’ musical arrangers, worked with HBC choreographer Violet Giddings ’19 to produce an interpretation of Elton John’s Rocket Man. The addition of choreography uniquely complements the song and brings new dimensions to its story and themes.

“I’m a big fan of the idea of music as storytelling,” Marsh says. “Rocket Man lyrically tells the story of a lonely astronaut, yet there are other stories the song can tell: for instance, the official music video recasts the astronaut as a refugee and was created by an Iranian refugee as he tried to build a life for himself in London. In Out of Orbit, the arrangement is purely instrumental, which I think allows the music and the choreography to tell a story together through sound and motion instead of words.”

Giddings also sees how the choreography changes the interpretation of the song, and aimed to create a visual representation of the music through dance.

“I think the choreography helps showcase aspects of the arrangement that might be hidden under the main melody," she says. "For example, some phrase work is only based off of the background piano beats. The choreography allows the audience to interpret the song physically, rather than mentally as a story. My goal was to have people almost see the music moving through the dancers.”

For information about the show times, dates and tickets, click here