Last Friday I was very fortunate to attend the world premiere performance of “Prelude to War,” my ballet based on my scores for Battlestar Galactica. The ballet was performed by the outstanding dancers of the Theaterhagen, in Hagen, Germany. The choreography was by the resident choreographer Ricardo Fernando, and the orchestra was conducted by Bernhard Steiner.
When I was first approached about writing a ballet based on my Galactica scores, I leapt at the opportunity to translate my music to a new medium. From my initial discussions with Ricardo it was clear that he and I shared a similar vision of the ballet. We wanted to create a new and exciting narrative, using the music of the series but completely stripping it from the context of the show.
(Me and Ricardo Fernando, choreographer)
While I was writing, Ricardo and I struggled with NBC Universal to get the rights to perform this work at all. In the end, they granted us permission to use the music, but not to use the name “Battlestar Galactica” anywhere in the title. (I could fill an entire blog about the creative logic necessary to deal with studios, but its more fun to focus on the artistic side of my job).
However, this decision was a blessing in disguise, because it allowed us to promote this as a bold new work, not a derivative adaptation from another. The rhythms, melodies, taiko patterns and individual movement titles all have meaning for Battlestar fans. However, our hope was that audiences unfamiliar with the series could also enjoy the work, completely unaware of the layers of meaning that BG fans would find in it. The elegantly simple title, “Prelude to War,” invites non-fans and fans alike to enjoy the ballet.
I wrote the ballet by editing together cues and soundtrack album cuts to form individual conceptual movements. Though I would have loved to orchestrate the work myself, there was simply no time to set aside the weeks it would require. So, I turned to my friend and mentor James Hopkins.
Jim has been somewhat of a “consigliere” to the scoring team on Galactica lately, contributing his wisdom and experience to the scores to Unfinished Business, Maelstrom, Revelations, Sometimes a Great Notion, A Disquiet Follows My Soul and Daybreak among others. As a result, he was quite familiar with my work when I asked him to translate my scores into a purely symphonic medium.
This was not a simple task. Although the theater agreed to hire three additional percussionists to play taikos (bringing the grand total to six drummers in all), none of the other signature ethnic instruments would be available to us. Melodies intended for the duduk, bansuri, erhu, yialli tanbur, electric violin, biwa and others had to be translated to instruments within the symphonic orchestra, yet still preserve the distinct ethnic qualities unique to Battlestar.
While Jim and I collaborated on the orchestration, Ricardo choreographed the visual components of the ballet in Germany, working from my sketches and edits. Ricardo and I spoke and emailed frequently, but creatively we basically left one another alone. He gave absolutely no input as to what music I should select, how many movements the work should have or anything in that realm. Likewise, I dictated nothing about the visual elements of the piece, aside from clarifying our shared desire that the dance not directly reflect any characters or story arcs from the series.
The experience was both exhilarating and terrifying because I am a fully-confessed control freak. This work was the first time I let go of the reigns to allow an orchestrator to dramatically revise my work, a choreographer to interpret and provide visuals or another conductor to pick up the baton for my work. However, I had found excellent collaborators and the ballet exceeded my (very high) expectations.
(The Theater in Hagen)
I arrived in Hagen, Germany, a few days before the premiere. I haven’t traveled across the Atlantic in over 20 years, so I was completely unprepared for the obliterating impact of jetlag. I almost slept through our first press conference, which began at 2pm on my first day! Fortunately, everybody was cool about it, especially Peter and Rene from Caprica-City.de who showed Raya and I around town before our interview. (To thank them for their generosity, I gave their website the world-premiere sneak peek at my Theme to Caprica, performed on the piano at the Theater in Hagen!)
The rehearsals last week were challenging, but fun. I was absolutely stunned with the brutal acrobatics Ricardo was asking of his incredibly talented dancers. I was witnessing forms and movements I didn’t know the human body was capable of.
I spent most of the week working alongside Bernhard Steiner and the orchestra. The major issue to deal with concerned the placement of the taikos and percussion. The pit size was limited, so all six percussionists were placed on an eight-foot riser at the back of the stage.
The effect was visually stunning, since the drummers essentially became part of the dance. But on a practical level it was extremely challenging because they were separated from the rest of the orchestra by over twenty feet. Coordinating tempos was a challenge in the early rehearsals, but once the ensemble and the sound engineer got used to the situation, everything lined up.
Another problem occurring early on was the strict training of German classical musicians getting the better of them in several passages. I found the musicians had occasional difficulty with the fluid, improvisatory and bouncy nature of certain ethnic-inspired melodies. It wasn’t that they were playing it wrong; not at all. They were playing it right… absolutely, metrically and methodically perfect. Melodies like the flute line in “Fight Night” are meant to be a little lighter, more fluttery and dance-like. It was an uphill battle to get there, but we got there.
I decided on creating nine individual movements, with very little connective thematic material. I wanted to represent a diverse collection of the various themes, colors and emotions in Battlestar Galactica. I arranged the movements so that there was a vague sense of narrative structure, and Ricardo picked up on all the subtleties in the music and interpreted them into his movements.
I. Prelude to War
from Pegasus and Resurrection Ship, Pt. I & II
The ballet actually opens with a quotation of “A Distant Sadness” from the Season 3 soundtrack album. The dancers begin motionless behind a screen projecting images of stars and planets (the only science fiction reference in the entire ballet).
The introduction reaches its peak and blasts into Season 2’s “Prelude to War.” The screen lifts and reveals the dancers. Ricardo’s choreography here is aggressive and dynamic, evoking not outer space imagery at all, but savage (almost samurai-like) combat.
For the signature taiko breakdowns in this piece, the dancers pick up large staves and battle one another in tightly choreographed movements. The sounds of their combat blends with the taikos perfectly, essentially forming a twenty-member percussion ensemble.
from Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Pt. I
The most simple music yielded on of the most elegant dances. Pairs of dancers worked together in fluid, parallel motion, mirroring the repetitive ground-bass of the passacaglia.
III. Baltar’s Followers
from He That Believeth and Escape Velocity
This cue was written to represent rituals and ceremonies, and it does so here as well.
Two solo dancers leap across an elevated stage (formed from four multi-function tables), while they are surrounded by a mob of followers.
IV. The Resurrection Hub
from The Hub
The tables forming the stage are split into two, and two pairs of dancers perform on them during one of the most memorable and melodic works from Season 4.
V. Among the Ruins
from Sometimes a Great Notion
This is the piece where Ricardo’s choreography really blew me away. As I mentioned in my blog entry about this piece, “Among the Ruins” is an ambient and atonal bed of frozen sonic tones. There is virtually no perceptible meter or tempo.
I assumed Ricardo would set this to a loosely choreographed solo dancer. But, instead he put eight dancers on the stage, UPSIDE DOWN against four walls. Compounding the complexity is the fact that they are placed where they can’t see one another. Their movements must mirror each other’s exactly, and they had no beats or rhythm to help guide them. This looked like it was brutally difficult, but they pulled it off.
The visual result reminded me of the ruined city on Earth for which I composed this piece. The individual walls were moved into a single continuous wall, across which dancers were lifted in cascading movements. The music of this particular moment is from the cue where Starbuck finds her body in the crash site, an English horn and solo violin playing the erhu melody.
The walls flip down into tables again and form a center stage. The dancers perform on it again as the dissonant, atonal A-Theme returns. By the end of the movement, they have taken their places for the beginning of the next movement.
VI. Fight Night
from Unfinished Business
This one blasts by pretty quick, but is extremely exciting. The dancer’s staves return, but are this time used as part of the set instead of weapons.
VII. Roslin and Adama
from Resurrection Ship, Pt. I & II
This is the movement that really blew people away. Ricardo placed Marcelo and his wife Carla in a huge aquarium and choreographed their movements in six inches of water. The lush and lyrical music accompanied them beautifully.
(Technically, this movement is actually a suite that also includes “Admiral and Commander” from the Season 3 soundtrack. I’ve found that the “Roslin and Adama” and “Wander My Friends” melodies blend together very well, and you’ll hear this idea in action in next week’s final episode.)
At the end of the uplifting “Roslin and Adama” B-Section, Carla falls into his arms as the lights go black on the last note. (This moment gave me chills!) I certainly hope that non-BG-fans also loved this piece, but I must confess that the dance perfectly reflects the complex and bittersweet relationship between Roslin and Adama in Battlestar. Seeing this haunting choreography between a man and woman within the confines of the tank was quite emotional for me, and I assume that BG fans in the audience felt the same way.
VIII. The Signal
This piece was composed in a swinging 7/8 meter, with occasional bars of 3/8, 9/8 and 4/4 thrown in there just to keep things interesting. At the end, it modulates metrically to 6/8, then to 2/4, then accelerates swiftly by almost 100 beat per minute. In short… this was a nightmare for the dancers to count! (Many of them confessed this to me at the afterparty.) I had originally sent it to Ricardo almost as a joke, to see if he’d want to choreograph it, but he was eager to do it. And it was worth the trouble.
The original recording included a choir performing a Samoan war chant. Jim and I decided to transfer this percussive chant rhythm to the horns and trombones and the result worked surprisingly well. Violent and energetic, “The Signal” is basically the big, climactic finale that one would expect for the last movement…
… except that it’s not. The ballet concludes with an instrumental performance of “Diaspora Oratorio,” the epic and sweeping conclusion to Revelations. Here, Ricardo called for costume changes and more dramatic lighting than seen before in the piece. A moving green laser provided the feeling that the work was leaping from the stage into the audience.
At the end of the ballet, the dancers face the audience, holding flashlights to their faces. One by one, they shut them off until the stage is in darkness. They slowly turn and walk away as the last notes of “Diaspora” echo away. Ricardo told me that this was an allegory warning us that the arts may vanish slowly if we’re not careful to avoid this fate.
The obvious choice for the ending of the ballet would have been a big, percussive finale. But somehow this felt more appropriate and judging from the audience reaction, I made the right decision.
The premiere was a magical night. I had already been told that the evening was sold out, but the interesting thing was I saw a lot of people who I suspected had never been to a ballet before in their lives. There were many, many Battlestar fans in attendance. How does one recognize a Battlestar fan? I must admit I’m developing a sixth sense for it, but sometimes it’s easier than others. 🙂
Throughout the night, and especially at the after party, I was surrounding by fans who offered many interesting insights into the show and the ballet performance. It was fun to connect with them, especially since the great distant prevented most of them from seeing us perform our concerts in Los Angeles last spring.
(Curtain Call. photo courtesy of Tino Krist)
(L-R: Me, Carla Fernando, Ricardo Fernando, Raya and choreographer Young-Soon)
(Me and the taiko players)
(Conductor Bernhard Steiner)
The most exciting aspect of doing “Prelude to War” was transferring my work from one medium to another. This is music that I wrote for a narrative structure, for individual scenes within a television series. And now, Ricardo Fernando and his amazing dancers have crafted a new narrative structure around it. (How unusual, for underscore to have new visuals created specifically for it: a film composer’s dream!) The ballet has its own story to tell, but the spirit of the music, the spirit of Battlestar Galactica, still emanates from the stage.
Tickets and more information are available from the Theater’s Official Site.
The box office phone number is 0049/2331/2073218.
I’d like to leave this entry open as place for fans to post reviews or thoughts about this ballet. It’s running for thirteen weeks and there are still many opportunities to check it out. If you see it, stop back and let us know what you thought.
So Say We All!