Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company, pictured here at their 2021 October 30th Anniversary Concert, will perform three new works with Bach Aria Soloists at Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center Feb. 26. (photo by Ryan Bruce)
“If you hear the music but then see it through movement . . . it brings it to another level.”— Mary Pat Henry, co-founder and co-artistic director of Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company
In their second collaboration, Bach Aria Soloists and Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company are combining Baroque music and modern dance — with a twist.
The two groups first worked together in 2012, but both have paired dance and live music throughout their histories. Wylliams/Henry celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, while BAS is in its 22nd season.
“I’ve always thought that Bach’s music dances,” said Elizabeth Suh Lane, violinist, founder and artistic director of the Bach Aria Soloists. “There are so many dances within the music, and even the more serious violin solo pieces still dance.”
Working with dancers was something she’d always wanted to do. Her first collaboration was in 2006, working with Elizabeth Koeppen, former associate artistic director of Parsons Dance. “It was really thrilling for me,” said Suh Lane.
“I always thought it would make sense to work with dancers,” she said. “It provides so much more dynamism for the audience.”
Suh Lane and Mary Pat Henry, co-founder and co-artistic director of Wylliams/Henry, have worked together on various projects. Having live music is a “luxury,” said Henry, but with more moving parts, the opportunity also brings more risk.
“The thing about it that’s exciting is that we both have to connect on stage together. It’s not like they’re playing, and we dance. You have to really be in tune to the musicians,” said Henry.
“You just have to have that give and take. First, respecting the work that Elizabeth has done all these years, and then having done it last time, there’s a trust already there,” she said. “Each of us wants the other to truly do a beautiful performance that’s really collaborative and full and with energy.”
“What I love about working with Mary Pat is that she is a wonderful choreographer and so knowledgeable about Baroque dance, which many people are not,” said Suh Lane. Henry studied and taught historical dance styles both in the United States and in London. She and Suh Lane lamented how musicians sometimes forget the origins of these Baroque works, playing too fast or too slow, and losing that original purpose and intent of the music.
In their previous collaboration, Henry used her knowledge to create a work that began with Baroque dance steps and Baroque-style costumes but moved into a contemporary framework with contemporary steps.
“Although they are a contemporary dance company, the fact that Mary Pat has this scholarly knowledge really makes it so much more diverse,” said Suh Lane. “Because Bach Aria Soloists also does a huge panoply of styles, not just Baroque, it seems to fuse really beautifully.”
But it’s not just the dancers moving on stage. The choreography also allows for the musicians on stage, further enhancing the visual and aural experience.
“If you hear the music but then see it through movement, it just becomes a little different. It becomes a different prism that you’re hearing the music through,” said Henry. “It brings it to another level.”
For this concert, Wylliams/Henry will perform new choreography to three works.
Henry is choreographing Claudio Monteverdi’s “Pur ti miro,” while Wylliams/Henry co-artistic director DeeAnna Hiett will bring a new perspective to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata in E major for Violin and Continuo (which Henry choreographed for the last go around).
Hiett, chair of the dance department at UMKC Conservatory, was excited to get into the process.
“My style of choreographing is more like a conversation between instruments, adapted to movement,” she said.
Though she hasn’t worked much with Baroque music, she’s choreographed to all kinds of music. “A lot of the time, I will use a piece of epic music to choreograph movement and then put it on a classical piece . . . just to give a different feel for the music,” she said. “It always comes out very interesting to me.”
“It makes it unpredictable, and I don’t like to be predictable.”
And while Bach Aria Soloists often feature music from the Baroque era, that’s not always the case. They pride themselves on their versatility, and here they’ll also perform Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz.” O’Connor is a multi-instrumentalist composer, whose work connects traditional Americana and classical styles.
It’s music that both Suh Lane and Henry love. In fact, for a previous project, Henry has choreographed to a recording of the work, but she’s taken a fresh approach with this collaboration.
“When I talk with Elizabeth sometimes about the music, I then go in a very different direction than I normally would,” she said.
Growing up in South Carolina, and with her experience with period dance, she’ll bring elements of Appalachian folk dance into the work, which in turn has its origins in 17th-century English contradance. From this authentic grounding, she’ll incorporate contemporary steps.
“We both kind of challenge each other a little bit, just to think a little differently,” said Henry. “Elizabeth allows you to be risk-taking. It’s not just ‘here’s the music and this is my concept.’”
Bach Aria Soloists will also perform some works sans dance, including Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Air de la Folie” and Claudio Monteverdi’s “Si dolce’il Tormento,” featuring the group’s soprano, Sarah Tannehill Anderson. For each of the pieces, Elisa Bickers performs on harpsichord and Hannah Collins performs on cello.
These types of collaborations serve as imaginative impetus for creators and provide intrigue for audiences.
“There’s a sense that each person’s opinion or collaboration ideas are as important as yours. That’s what’s fun, because you step out of your comfort zone and take a risk,” said Henry. “Trust the other person with the vision that you both have.”
Bach Aria Soloists and Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company perform at Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, www.bachariasoloists.org.