Fellows News

A Swing of “The Pendulum” Brings Two Artists Back Together

Feb 3, 2013

Diane Coburn Bruning, Guggenheim Fellow in Choreographer, 2002, and Daron Aric Hagen, Guggenheim Fellow in Music Composition, 2012.

As the celebrated choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning attests in her conversation with Amy Skinner, often the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When the “parts” of a project are Ms. Bruning, Fellow in Choreography, 2002, and the stellar composer Daron Hagen, Fellow in Music Composition, 2012, the result promises to be great indeed.

Decades after their first, highly successful collaboration on Interior at The Sundance Institute, Diane Coburn Bruning and Daron Hagen, both consummate artists in their respective fields, are pairing up again to create another dance film. “I am thrilled to be working with the visionary Diane Coburn Bruning again after all these years,” Mr. Hagen effused. “Our ballet Interior predated by years the opera Thérèse Raquin by Tobias Picker [a Guggenheim Fellow in Music Composition, 1987], and treated the story with a taut emotionalism that I am still proud of thirty years later.” And he is equally enthusiastic about their current subject: two of Poe’s characteristically macabre stories, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “Masque of the Red Death.” “There is a cold, seething, manic, emotionally neurasthenic nature to Poe that I am really inspired by trying to match and augment for Diane in this project. In addition, I love scoring film, and hope to score more in the future; this project provides an opportunity to, hand in hand with a trusted collaborator, move forward in a genre that I don’t address nearly as often as I’d like.”

In the interview that follows, Diane shares how this project took shape and gives her own view of what she and Daron hope to accomplish in this partnership.

Diane, you’ve choreographed everything from Aida for the Pittsburgh Opera and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, to the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and your revisioning of Antigone, set in the Appalachian Mountains with an original score composed and played live by the Red Clay Ramblers. What drives your work more—story or music?

Each work is different; however, I am very much of the Stravinsky (Poetics of Music) mind: workaday, problem-solve, “grub around” to find something of interest and then work on it.  Some commissions are specific.  My work Boots, which premiered near Berlin, was to be my response to Lennon’s song Imagine; it was my own prayer for peace. I layered images for the prologue and seven scenes, then sought the sound. For Ramblin’ Suite (Atlanta Ballet), I was asked to do an homage to the ballet’s summer-season home in North Carolina with indigenous music—I hollered “The Red Clay Ramblers, please!” and worked with the band and their music to create the choreographic images.  As one of my music mentors, Juli Nunlist, used to say, “put yourself in a box” then try to get out of it in as interesting and compelling a way as possible. I like many, many boxes.

In Pendulum, your latest project, you’re exploring Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “Masque of the Red Death,” two dark stories that you remember elicited a “visceral fear” in you when you read them as a child.  What brought you back to them as a subject for your choreography?

Conceiving and making work for me is usually an incredibly messy, tangled, circuitous process.  Under duress, I can sometimes retrace it, which I attempted just yesterday for a supporter of Pendulum. I realized that a confluence of events propelled this: in discussing doing a project with a New York photographer I love working with, Chris Lynch, describing images that interested me, I brought up Poe. Then as I began thinking about a choreographic based on Poe’s stories USA Projects contacted me about doing a project on its site. I reread Poe, and while completing a commission in Richmond I visited the Poe museum there.  I met with [the Grammy-winning sextet] eighth blackbird about a commission we’re collaborating on and Poe came up again.  I see quite a few indie films, and when I learned that one of my Sundance mentors, Michael Kidd, passed away I began thinking about how grateful I am for all he gave me in the month I spent at Sundance making a short film, which started me contemplating making a short film on Poe.  Then I ran into Daron [Hagen] at the Guggenheim reception for new Fellows and we decided to work together again. When we met the next day, Poe was still on my mind. Daron was very excited about the idea of a Poe-inspired project, so we met again and decided to get on it. Messy and circuitous, yes? I euphemistically try to think of it as stream of consciousness!

You’ve said that you envision the two stories in The Pendulum playing out simultaneously.  Did that desire to layer the stories affect your decision to present this work as a film rather than as a stage production?  Does your role as director of the film impact the choreography in any way?

YES it did! When I was thinking of a series of Poe stories on stage (and actually contemplating site-specific performances, which I still hope to do with eighth blackbird at the University of Richmond), I conceived of the stories as being presented sequentially, or at least no two stories playing out simultaneously.  But when I thought of film, I saw the possibility of layering them in a type of smash-cutting, thus juxtaposing two narratives and two genres (dance and film) in such a way that each audience member would be compelled to extract his own meaning from the work.  With narratives, I am most interested in working in a nonlinear, constructivist, and layered way, allowing the viewer to weave the various story threads together in his own way.  I hope in the case of Pendulum that the audience will find in Poe’s stories allegories for our own times.

Once again, world-renowned opera composer—and Guggenheim Fellow in Music Composition (2012)—Daron Hagen is collaborating with you on this project.  The two of you earned rave reviews for your joint work on Interior, based on Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, and for your collaboration at the Sundance Institute on your first venture into film, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. How did you two reconnect for this project?

In a very crowded room during the Guggenheim reception for new Fellows last spring, I heard a voice call out my name and offer a nice compliment as I walked by.  I turned and saw Daron!  First time in, oh, maybe twenty years!  Since our early days working together, Daron had gone on to this big opera career (no surprise) and I worked primarily with ballet and dance companies.  It was perfect timing as I have been working quite a bit in opera at the Kennedy Center and with many different directors of theater companies. I learned a lot, especially in my recent collaboration with opera director John Pascoe, who really embraces movement in his work. My eye for dramatic narrative has been refined and my interest in narrative rekindled.

In Interior and Prufrock I loved how Daron was able to create sophisticated and penetrating sound that was at once both poignant and—there is no better word—creepy. And I loved our collaborative process: I would go to his apartment and show a little movement, then sit at his piano as he plunked out the passacaglia for one scene; he would turn to me after a variation and say, “or would you like an extra bar here, like this?”  What a glorious question and approach! Interior was my first big commission with a composer and I must say that I came to realize many things from that experience: I was spoiled in working with Daron, which set the bar high for my future collaborations; the whole can truly be greater than the sum of its parts; and the risk is worth it.

In an interview with Roberta Hershenson in the New York Times (November 12, 1995), you asserted that choreography and music had to be in dialogue, that the music must never be a mere accompaniment for the dancers.  How much influence do you and Daron have on each other’s contribution to this project?

I hope huge. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Of course I have a vision and will have specific needs and wants and images for the sound, but that said, I told him that I want him to feel so passionately about what he composes that he will argue with me in support of his vision.  I abhor the idea of composers being sort of subservient to a choreographer or filmmaker—it makes for mediocre music. A dialogue means people are sharing different views on a given subject—why speak if not to improve upon the silence? Within the given parameters, I want Daron to write his best music, music that can proudly claim a place with the rest of his amazing oeuvre.

How is Pendulum coming along?  Do you have specific goals for the film?

We are in the preproduction/artistic development phase (read fundraising and mulling ideas). I am thrilled that the esteemed dance filmmaker and another of my Sundance mentors, Elliott Caplan, will be an advisor, so I will be meeting with him; I am working with my DP, Sheila Smith, and developing ideas for shots; and I will get into the studio with some dancers in a few months. Daron and I plan to be sitting at a keyboard again in March.

Our pressing need now is for a few more supporters to help us reach the financial goal for this phase as a USA Projects supported artist.

My goal for the film short is for screenings at dance and other film festivals worldwide, online distribution, and distribution to high schools and universities for use in courses on Poe.  I personally want to challenge myself artistically by delving further into the new genre of dance and film with the hope that the result will justify the risk the Sundance Institute took in granting me a residency years ago.