Of Pop Music and Petipa

Ricky Kuperman '11 reflects on his desire to fuse his commercial dance background with concert dance aesthetics in his choreography. His latest work, based on the Pygmalion myth, will premiere at Harvard Ballet Company's fall show, "Momentum."

To begin dancing and choreographing at Harvard was somewhat of a tricky transition for me. I grew up training in a variety of styles, from tap to ballet to jazz, all within a more popular (i.e. pop-music) and, as some would label it, "commercial" framework. That’s not to imply that the work I did prior to my arrival lacked depth or artistic integrity; rather, it was intended for a different type of audience and purpose than the sort of concert work that dominates the Dance Program’s aesthetic. For this reason, freshman fall was a frustrating experience, as I was forced, perhaps against my will, to broaden my definition of dance, and to understand in a more nuanced way the historical and cultural contexts in which different forms of dance are created. It was a challenging few months as I adjusted, but I am thrilled at the result: a strong appreciation for dance in all of its shapes and sizes, and an enormous expansion in my own choreographic range and vocabulary.

I don’t mean to say that I’ve abandoned my pop dance roots. I still tune in to SYTYCD and can’t imagine excluding music with lyrics from my list of potential soundtracks for dances. I’ve maintained a deep respect for the possibilities within the commercial dance world, a respect that is sometimes lacking among concert dance devotees. Both concert and commercial works have the potential to be both good and bad, so the categorization of choreography into one of these two worlds should never be accompanied by a value judgment.

For me, the distinction that matters is whether the piece has a strong and lasting impact on its audience. For example, an intricately planned, esoteric, and sometimes inaccessible justification for each individual movement of a piece speaks to a choreographer’s effort, but not necessarily to his or her success. Regardless of how beautifully crafted a piece may be "on the inside," if the choreographer fails to impact his or her audience, the piece has fallen short. With this in mind, I strive to incorporate the most effective elements from both worlds, commercial and concert, into my choreography. I hope that the marriage of these often disparate dance subcultures grows to characterize my choreographic style.

For my current project, I’ve taken my inspiration from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion. The theme of the inanimate springing to life has always fascinated me, and has also been popular among history’s choreographers. Looking back, the myth of Pygmalion has been transposed onto the stage several times. Petipa’s ballet of the same name premiered over one hundred years ago, and Coppélia, a ballet with strong narrative ties to the original story, is still performed by some of the world’s top dance companies. What will distinguish my piece from these classic interpretations is my focus on an interdisciplinary approach to dance creation: an emphasis on other movement forms, such as mime; an embracing of the technical capabilities of the Loeb Mainstage, where the piece will be presented; a partly-original and riveting contemporary score by composer Owen Belton, who has been commissioned in the past by such world-class companies as Nederlands Dans Theater and the National Ballet of Canada. I hope that these elements, along with my fresh movement, will breathe new life into this age-old story.

The rehearsal process thus far has been a fantastic experience. I work best in a collaborative environment, and I’m lucky to have an exceptionally talented cast that I can trust to be vocal about their own ideas and to communicate clearly how my movement feels on their own bodies. More than that, I am surrounded by a team of experienced choreographers and dance artists, including Dance Director Liz Bergmann, Assistant Dance Director Kristin Ing Aune, and Larissa Koch. I know that I can count on these accomplished artists to be excellent outside-eyes and to provide valuable feedback throughout the rest of the rehearsal process.

[Caption: Elizabeth Walker '11 and Kevin Shee '11 perform Ricky Kuperman's "Small Crime." Photo by Edwin Yoo.]

See also: Dance, Dance, archive