On the surface, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's upcoming collaboration on April 13 and 14 with the nearly undefinable local performance troupe PUSH Physical Theatre may seem like nothing new. The RPO has long worked with performers from other artistic mediums, including movement-based groups as varied as the Rochester City Ballet and Cirque de la Symphonie. But in actuality, this program -- entitled "Breaking Boundaries with PUSH Physical Theatre" -- is all about subtle innovations that find both the musicians and stage performers presenting their craft in new contexts.
Though the initial approach to this collaboration was open-ended, Darren Stevenson, co-Artistic Director of PUSH Physical Theatre, was clear about the direction he wanted to avoid. "There is this thing that sometimes happens where we say that we're collaborating," Stevenson explains. "What's actually happening is the musicians are onstage playing something and the dancers are onstage dancing something. We just happen to be doing it at the same time. And we call it a collaboration. And that's great for writing grants and everything, and we all feel good about it, but did we really collaborate?"
This attitude toward the program resonated with RPO Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik, and a more organic brainstorming for how the music and movement would converge was the result. "It's just opened my eyes to thinking about how we program concerts in a totally different way," Tyzik says.
What makes the meeting of PUSH and the RPO dynamic is the creation of new work. In addition to bringing some of his existing compositions to the program -- which will focus on the concept of journeys, both personal and universal -- Tyzik has composed new music for PUSH's work, "Galileo."
For the first time, PUSH co-Artistic Director Heather Stevenson will perform her signature solo piece "The Visit" with musical accompaniment, Tyzik's "Memory" from his orchestral cycle "Images: Musical Impressions of an Art Museum." The conductor will also present his composition "Blue Funk," with the members of PUSH portraying primordial beings that emerge from the ocean.
"I am fond of the idea that things don't change that much, we just think they do," Stevenson says. "We're kind of concerned with the same sorts of things as everyone else is, and everyone else has always been. So these little creatures, they're slithering around, you know, one of them figures out how to walk, and the others wanna walk. And they have little conflicts with each other, and they wanna know 'Who is my friend and who am I fighting?'"
Stevenson and PUSH -- a group whose creative experiments with movement place them somewhere between where traditional dance ends and performance art begins --brought a paradigm-shifting concept to collaborative process. "When you're improvising, and you're lifting someone, they're lifting you, and you're dancing together in physical contact," Stevenson says. "You're trying to think of that in terms of there being three parties: there's me and you, and there's the movement, as if the movement is another person."
Stevenson acknowledges that trying to answer the question "What does the movement want to do?" is not always a sure-success. "It doesn't always work, but when you fall into those moments, it's like magic," he says. "It's meditative, in that for one moment, you're not planning for the future, you're not evaluating the past. You're right in the moment."
Perhaps the most intriguing and potentially risky part of the collaborative performance will be a live improvisation between RPO trumpeter Herb Smith and the members of PUSH. In it, the previously mentioned primordial life forms will physically interact with Smith, who will play the god figure that they worship.
"So in this piece, we said, 'OK, so God can only communicate through the trumpet, and we can only communicate through movement, and so how do we understand each other?'" Stevenson says.
As a joint effort, "Breaking Boundaries" is distinctive. On the one hand, PUSH Physical Theatre embodies not merely characters, but also the environment of the characters, the sense of space that environment implies. Stevenson explains: "What I'm trying to do is say, 'What in the entire universe of possible movements is the right way to transmit this idea the best?'"
For its part, the RPO's willingness to present both new works and canonic classical music (in this case, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and rarer pieces by Zoltán Kodály and Maurice Ravel) in a more unconventional light helps to make these concerts more than just business as usual for orchestral programming.
"I think that really speaks to the future of orchestras," Tyzik says of the collaboration. "The ones that take chances and keep experimenting are going to have a much better prospect of developing new audiences going forward than the ones that just say, 'OK, we limit our concerts to Broadway and film music, and whatever these six categories are, and then that's it. That's who we are. We sell out and we do really well.' Well that's right now. But what about ten years from now?"