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20 August 2015

Elena Kats-Chernin: The Three Dancers

Rambert The 3 Dancers Image: Rambert The 3 Dancers  
© Chris Nash

Malcolm Gillies talked to Elena Kats-Chernin in August 2015, around the time of the premiere of the concert version of her new work The Three Dancers in Townsville, Queensland. Read also: Malcolm Gillies: 'Kats-Chernin's "The Three Dancers" in London' (Resonate, 17 November 2015)

In 1925 Pablo Picasso painted his Three Dancers. At the time, he was much affected by the recent death of his friend Ramon Pichot, the husband of the seductive Germaine Gargallo, once an artist's model. Gargallo had been shot at in 1901 by a frustrated admirer, Carlos Casagemus, who then turned the gun on himself. Around this tragic love triangle, spread across a quarter-century, Picasso painted his dark-mooded work (see: the Tate Gallery website). He seems to represent the stark Carlos in the middle, flanked by a distorted and detailed Germaine to left, and a stick-like Ramon to right. There is also a dark silhouette to Ramon believed to be Picasso's then wife, the dancer Olga Khakhlova, with whom relations were fast deteriorating in 1925.

Picasso's painting provides the inspiration for The Three Dancers, a major new composition by the Australian composer, Elena Kats-Chernin. It was premiered as a concert piece at the Australian Chamber Music Festival, in Townsville, on 8 August 2015. Its premiere as a ballet, but with the same score, is presented by the Rambert Company at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, England, on 23 September 2015, to a choreography by Didy Veldman, and design by Kimie Nakano. After touring to various regional British centres, it opens at Sadler's Wells in London on 3 November.

The Three Dancers is a typical example of co-commissioning in today's arts world. The work's concept, initially promoted by Anthony Wilkinson, of the Wimbledon International Music Festival, and then Townsville's Festival of Chamber Music along with Dancenorth, was later joined by three American festivals (Sitka Summer Music, El Paso Pro Musica, and the West Bach Festival). Such co-commissioning shares around the high costs of production of major festival works. It also allows for festivals, often individually strapped for cash, to contribute to more substantial commissions that attract top-flight composers, such as Kats-Chernin.

And substantial The Three Dancers certainly is. Kats-Chernin's twenty-five-minute work is written as one continuous movement, with nine sections. It is scored for seven instrumentalists (piano, accordion, violin, cello, double bass, soprano saxophone, and percussion), who all contribute in almost democratic fashion to the creation of the work's dark and unrelieved texture. Originally writing twelve, more self-standing, sections for the commission, Kats-Chernin then pulled the score back to nine, more connected parts, disposed in a loose symmetry around her central, fifth section, 'Cubist Counterpoint'.

Kats-Chernin's intention, however, is not to tell the story in music or in dance; nor to establish set motives for the individual characters, or musically to try to 'paint' Picasso's painting. Rather, as she described to her Townsville audience on 8 August 2015, she is portraying the tragic and tense mood that the characters have found themselves in, caught between 'idealised love, unrequited passion, and violent desire'.

So, the work is deliberately heavy in texture, but it is not dull, given Kats-Chernin's irrepressible love of vivid colours, in music as in life. There is little soloistic writing, or 'concerted' writing in set sub-groups of duos, trios or quartets. But a couple of the instruments do play significant roles in defining section character: the accordion, for instance, in the second section, 'Half Tango', or the fourth, 'Conversation'; or the soprano saxophone, in culminating that 'Conversation', then leading into the central 'Cubist Counterpoint'. But the overwhelming impression is of a strongly corporate ensemble of seven players all gripped with the same artistic agenda.

Well, this is what Kats-Chernin intended. Hearing the Townsville premiere, however, she came to realise the role of changing trios in the work, afterwards writing to me: 'I only realised last night that I instinctively wrote for many combinations of trios throughout the piece. Sometimes piano, accordion and cello, sometimes violin, piano and vibraphone, and many others. I guess no. 3 plays a big role in the piece and just naturally weaves through the piece.'

It will be interesting to see, then, in the balletic presentation, how the trios of Picasso's picture or Kats-Chernin's music are reflected in Veldman's choreography, or Nakano's design.

It is also noteworthy that, while avoiding any temptation to represent Picasso's painting, Kats-Chernin does frame her own music with reference to it. Her opener, titled 'Right Angle', is influenced by the vague, shadowy figures on the painting's right flank, while the closing, ninth section, looks to the more defined, but equally tense, 'Left Angle'.

The Three Dancers is a world away from Kats-Chernin's earlier dance piece, Wild Swans (2002), which is based upon Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. In her own description, this new piece is 'much darker', with nothing 'pretty or naive' about it. And the task she has set herself is harder. While Wild Swans was conceived as a ballet, The Three Dancers is conceived as both a ballet and a concert piece.

Because of the many co-commissioners of the work, Kats-Chernin has not sought to write for the players of one particular ensemble. However, she did at an early stage of composition work with Scottish-born accordion player, James Crabb, as well as Australian pianist Tamara Anna Cislowska; and naturally she took some account of the various co-commissioners' aspirations, whether for the ballet or the concert piece.

The concert premiere on 8 August in Townsville was a huge success. Kats-Chernin had been composer-in-residence at the Chamber Music Festival in 2014, so her music was already familiar to the Festival's loyal audience, who were delighted now to hear their own commission of her work. Several of the players at the Townsville premiere will also feature in the many UK and US performances of The Three Dancers over the coming year.

Further links

Elena Kats-Chernin - AMC profile (biography, recordings, events, articles)
The Three Dancers ballet, Plymouth 23-25 September: event details in the AMC Calendar - see also the Rambert website for other dates and locations
The Three Dancers ballet, Sadler's Wells, London 3-7 November: AMC Calendar - see also the Sadler's Wells website

Subjects discussed by this article:

Malcolm Gillies is a London-based musicologist. He will also write for Resonate about The Three Dancers' London premiere, as a ballet, in November. 


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