The Nouveau Classical Project on “Potential Energies,” a Millennial Ballet

The Nouveau Classical Project. Credit: Mickey Hoelscher

Young people have it tough, these days—maybe you’ve heard! But maybe the most honorable response to life’s vicissitudes is to make art of them. This Thursday, at BAM, the Nouveau Classical Project, in collaboration with the TrioDance Collective, will perform Potential Energies, an ambitious, multidisciplinary production that aspires to address the “the shock and pain of reality” facing millennials through a unique melding of classical music, dance, and fashion. We talked with NCP artistic director and pianist Sugar Vendil, composer Trevor Gureckis, and choreographer Barbie Diewald about the ballet, Facebook, and turning 30.

So, what is the Nouveau Classical Project?

Sugar: It started off as a concert series that linked classical music and fashion, primarily because I love those two things so much. I always saw fashion as this really expressive art form. As it grew, I just kept rethinking the concert experience, too. I feel like Potential Energies is a culmination of everything we’ve done so far.

What performative possibilities does fusing disparate art forms open up?

Sugar: The fashion adds a different atmosphere, just that simple visual element. With dance and music, it makes you question, what’s a chamber piece? What’s a ballet? They’re maybe not just limited to these singular things. With this particular project, we’re trying to actually merge the two things, not just have one thing here and the other there, not touching at all.

I’m obsessed with the idea of a classical musician as a present part of a performance. When you’re in school, learning how to be a musician, what you’re told is that it’s not about you, it’s about the music. You’re absent from the performance. And i just don’t see it that way. We spent so much time learning this music, but without us, it’s a piece of paper. Why can’t we be part of it? That’s what led to all this thinking about how to make the musician a part of a performance. And we maintain the integrity of the music, whatever that means. It’s just acknowledging their bodies are there, and they matter.

Trevor, can you describe your compositional process, and what inspirations you took into writing this piece?

Trevor: When we started, we knew that we needed to give some room for the physicality of the performance. That was always in the back of my mind—“is this gonna be difficult to move to?” That guided some elements of what I was doing. But there are also a lot of ideas about the ballet that I needed to convey. “What does this piece mean, and how do I convey it?” I’m a little more free than being at the whim of a film director, with set images, but there’s a thematic goal with each piece.

I tend to play with thematic material a lot, and I do in this ballet as well; that kind of just happened naturally. There are a lot of structures in this that are about maintaining the emotion for the length of time that [the performance] needs, instead of going off on something else that’s absolutely music-based.

Sugar Vendil. Credit: Trevor Gureckis

What’s an example of one of those ideas that you had to figure out how to develop sonically?

Trevor: One of the set pieces I jokingly call a Facebook moment, because there’s this dichotomy between what the characters portray versus what people actually feel. I think Facebook is a great way for people to say they’re doing really well, that they’re succeeding in life, but behind the screen, they’re not really feeling that way.

Sugar: They’re crying! [laughs]

Trevor: So we wanted to bring that contrast. There’s a very literal way of doing this—bright/sad music. It creates an interesting contrast: the dancers are up front, doing all this crazy stuff, and the music is slow and melancholy behind them. Sometimes they draw back and interact with the musicians—it’s sort of this play between the two elements. And so there needs to be a simplicity within the music to allow that to happen.

This is the first time you’ve worked with Barbie. I read that you guys met on Facebook—unpack that irony for me.

Barbie: We did meet on Facebook! A composer whom I’d worked with and another friend of mine both knew Sugar, and she had posted something about looking for a choreographer to collaborate with. When we met, I immediately felt really excited about the project, and we started working together.

I imagine your choreographic inspirations were similar to the musical inspirations?

Barbie: Yeah, definitely. I spent a lot of time just watching the musicians early on. We took those natural movements they have—a lift of the elbow, the way you raise your wrist above the keys—and we brought that into the studio and exaggerated or repeated it. I spent a lot of time in the beginning watching videos alone. What came out for me was a little bit different from my usual work.

You’ve all described these interactions abstractly. But if I’m sitting in the audience, what am I seeing? What’s the uniqueness of it?

Barbie: One of the guiding principles of those relationships in the studio was that the musician would represent reality and the dancer would represent dreams or ideals. A lot of times, the dancers started to manipulate the musicians, and vice versa.

Sugar: You’d see that interplay of dreams versus reality—they represent two sides of the same person. What I’m hoping people will see is a bit of themselves. The whole millennial thing—that was tangible material. But the bigger idea—of rude awakenings, of wanting something so badly—age doesn’t matter. One of our goals was to create this strong relationship between pairs [of dancer and musician], so you could see this conflict between them. You’ll also just see musicians doing things they don’t normally do on stage. They’re really part of the action. Musicians aren’t dancers—you’re not going to see them doing pirouettes—but we all are movers.

The Nouveau Classical Project. Credit: Mickey Hoelscher

How much did your own experiences inform the writing and development?

Sugar: I’ll be really candid: I was pretty spoiled, and had a ton of support growing up. Then the economy happened, and it was really tough. I support myself without depending on my parents, but it wasn’t always like that. I feel like I’m really lucky to have had that, but I had this sense of impracticality because I wasn’t taught certain things. And just, looking around seeing all your friends who have all these degrees and they’re not able to get jobs.

Trevor: Being 31, I remember going to school and having that experience [of feeling confident in my work], and then coming into the real world experience, and now trying to figure it out from there. We have friends who have gone in different directions from what they originally set out on. So there are these three acts, and they’re structured in that way—beginning, in school, with your plans and everyone tells you you’re going to be a concert pianist or a university professor; and then that sense of going to do it, that’s act two—the music is fast and exciting. Last act is like, “is this gonna work?” There’s a little bit of mourning, because people quit. Maybe they realize their thing was never something they were into, or maybe they have to tell themselves that. It’s like a spectrum—the three of us are at the point where we’re like, “We’re gonna make ourselves.” But we were on that route. We can look back and see our generation, and where people are, even amongst the musicians and dancers.

Barbie: There was a specific research phase in the beginning where we talked at length with all of the dancers and musicians about where they were, how they came to their discipline, how they’re doing in it, what they expected when they moved to New York, etc. Except for our violinist, every one came here, from elsewhere, with a dream. We spent a lot of time talking about all of that, and how we’ve adapted our definitions of success.

Trevor: In your twenties, I feel like you’re very dependent on other people, if only for experience. I feel like I’m a little more on my own now.

Watch the Potential Energies Trailer on Vimeo.

General admission tickets for Potential Energies are $28, $20 for students. VIP tickets are $50, and include special seating plus admission to the post-show party, sponsored by Southwind Vineyard and Winery. Tickets are available at

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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