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Where Lang Lang led... Chopin and a dubstep dancer – and cross artform collaboration

Date published
Friday 19 October 2012
Martin Cullingford

A promotional video for Lang Lang’s new Chopin album has the pianist playing Etude Op 25 No 12 while a dancer called Marquese 'Nonstop' Scott responds to the music (in what I now know to be dubstep style) across the floor of a voluminous warehouse. It’s not the first video to combine music and similar dance – in the past we’ve sent Gramophone readers links to the spirited video of Alexandre Tharaud playing Couperin’s Tic Toc Choc, accompanied by a hip hop dancer and beat boxer, and there’s also a sublimely surreal dance response to Yo Yo Ma playing Saint-Saëns at the White House.

Like them, Lang Lang’s video is a fun and thoughtful attempt to bring together two very different artistic forms – and, crucially, two very different audiences. When most people encounter such collaborations it is, however, almost invariably in short-form high-profile experiments such as Lang Lang’s, designed to grab wide attention. That’s not meant to belittle them – that’s part of their point. But elsewhere such collaborations can, and do, create something deeper and more meaningful.

At a formative, grassroots, level, I personally see this a lot. My wife runs a theatre, the Blue Elephant in London, which offers a nurturing home for this sort of cross artform collaboration. Having regularly accompanied me to classical events over many years, she possibly has a uniquely rounded perspective on both ‘worlds’; but it’s clearly an appetite shared by many young artists she works with, and for whom this isn’t so much cross artform as just art. Earlier this year she staged a performance by a group called ConcertTheatre, led by artists from the Royal Academy of Music and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which combined music by Chopin and Schubert with texts by TS Eliot and Chekhov. This was not a pianist offering background mood music - rather the words, their rhythm and cadence, were intricately interwoven with the score. It became something quite different to what either could achieve on their own – and was poignant and beautiful.

Talking after that performance with the principal of the RAM (and Gramophone critic) Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, I was thrilled to hear of his commitment to the potential such exchanges of ideas can have for creativity. The RAM has form here, whether that be links with the Bristol School of Animation, working with the British Film Institute on presenting a newly restored print of Alfred Hitchcock’s first film The Pleasure Gardens at Wilton’s Music Hall, or drawing on elements of choreographed design, theatre and puppetry for a new opera by Peter Maxwell Davies. It’s also currently working on a collaboration with the Wallace Collection to help explore and contextualise an exhibition. And, from a different group, earlier this month I reported on the first collaboration between The Sixteen and the Queen’s Galleries, linking Josquin and da Vinci.

Elsewhere, two years ago, Aldeburgh Festival’s ambitious enthusiasm for ignoring boundaries saw me walking through a rain-swept Thorpeness, from Britten concert to concert, beside sculptural installations floating in the Meare and young actors resplendent in vintage Fred Perry playing tennis or thwacking the rough, illuminating the Edwardian resort’s origins. Next year’s festival promises a Peter Grimes-themed walk through Aldeburgh itself courtesy of immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, about which I’m very intrigued but slightly apprehensive.

English National Opera is also to be praised here, the hypnotically meditative music of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha not so long ago given vivid visual manifestation by theatre company Improbable. The project attracted one of my theatre friends to his first opera – this is what ENO should be doing more of if it wants to attract the artistically committed and curious new audiences it seeks, not obsessing over what audience members wear (for the record, I doubt it even crossed my friend’s mind whether his attire was or was not suitable). And if any individual artist embodies such work, it must surely be Michel van der Aa, his compositions embracing film and movement not as a way of simply staging them, but as an integral part of the scored piece.

Cross art form collaboration is not always the right approach, and sometimes it doesn’t work. Blending genres, or adding elements to established works of art, needs to create something different and of worth in its own right – otherwise it detracts. Sometimes music requires an approach of uncompromising purity to achieve an entirely immersive level of emotional understanding and engagement. After all, what could anything other than a single violin add to the solo Sonatas and Partitas of Bach? Yet even there, I note Alina Ibragimova recently collaborated to critical acclaim with film-makers the Quay Brothers on a work involving the deeply spiritual Chaconne.

This article began with the headline ‘where Lang Lang led’. I wasn’t implying that he was leading the charge towards a new way of working – there are others far further down that road, though I hope that with his talent and ability to inspire others it’s a road along which he will continue to journey – but more that he’s led this article a long way from a short promotional film of a pianist and dubstep dancer. So let’s return to where we began: here’s the video.