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Ballet with a Live Orchestra

Published June 10, 2022

Ballet with a Live Orchestra

by Steve Trounday

Once you’ve seen and heard a ballet performance with a live orchestra, there is really no comparison to one with a recording. There is something special when you see two performing arts groups working together to entertain an audience. A.V.A. Ballet Theatre and the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra have been performing together for the last 17 years. Every classical ballet at the Pioneer Center is with the orchestra. A.V.A. Ballet Theatre’s next classical ballet in September is Swan Lake- a ballet that has been on our schedule for three years.

In many ways, the collaboration between the Reno Philharmonic and A.V.A. Ballet Theatre was one of the factors that led to A.V.A. Ballet being selected as the resident ballet company of the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts. In a letter from former Reno Phil conductor Barry Jekowsky to the Pioneer Center’s board of directors, he wrote, “Any city in the United States would be envious of Reno’s cultural resources because they have a ballet company performing at the high level of A.V.A. Ballet Theatre.” The strong partnership between the ballet company and the orchestra has continued under music director Laura Jackson’s stewardship.

Said Jackson about the relationship, “Combining dance with live music adds an entirely new dimension to a performance because the dialogue between the two art forms becomes dynamic and spontaneous. It is fascinating for me as the conductor to guide the interaction between dancers and musicians. When it works best, sound and gesture inspire each other in a perfect partnership.

“Performances of ballet, opera or musical theater which employ recordings for the soundtrack are missing an essential element,” said Angela White, the interim president and CEO of the Reno Philharmonic Association. “No matter how brilliant the recording and the sound system used to play it back, performances without an orchestra lack the spirit and communication that is inherent in a live performance. The essence of the art form is the composer and choreographer’s artistic vision reconstructed and performed for the audience with life and spontaneity at each performance by the artists on stage and in the orchestra pit.”

Depending on the ballet, the process for having a live orchestra at a show can start almost a year in advance. After A.V.A. Ballet Theatre artistic director Alexander Van Alstyne decides what ballet he wants to perform, he has to secure the rights to the music. Except for public domain music such as that for The Nutcracker, he must seek permission from the composer, the heirs, or the management group that hold the rights. 

For The Secret Garden, he had to obtain special permission from the London Children’s Ballet to use the beautiful score composed by Artem Vassiliev. For Alice in Wonderland, he had to track down the 90-year-old composer, Joseph Horovitz, and seek his approval. When pursuing the rights for Peter Pan, its composer Carmon DeLeone asked if we would like him to visit Reno and conduct the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. It was quite the honor to have a composer of his stature come to Reno and conduct his own score. Twice!

Once the music rights are secured and royalties paid, Van Alstyne works with Virginia Evens the Reno Phil’s operations manager and orchestra personnel manager Mary Miller to obtain the sheet music. He informs them what sections of music he wants and in what order. They work their magic from there and the orchestra begins rehearsing.

In the meantime, the dancers from A.V.A. Ballet Theatre are rehearsing to recorded music. They rehearse for months. The live orchestra and the ballet dancers don’t actually come together until the week of the performances at the Pioneer Center. Van Alstyne works with Laura Jackson going over the timing and the “preset” so that she knows when to start or stop a piece of music. It is crucial that Jackson stay focused on the dancers and the dancers stay fixated on the beats. To the dancers, the tempos feel a little different with the live orchestra and they must get themselves into sync. Van Alstyne and Jackson work closely to make it all appear seamless when the curtain goes up. 

For the local dancers the opportunity to dance with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra is very special. “It’s so exciting dancing with the orchestra,” said Mya Dunlap, a local dancer and senior at Reno High School. “I know dancing with them is a unique experience and one I cherish.” 

The commitment to a live orchestra at every classical ballet can be financially daunting. A.V.A. Ballet Theatre is fortunate that their 17 seasons at the Pioneer have been financially successful and they can give the gift of live music and ballet to the citizens of northern Nevada. So, remember, if you want to see Swan Lake at the beloved Pioneer Center, with the large cast from A.V.A. Ballet Theatre, with guest principal dancers from throughout the country, with amazing sets from Eugene Ballet, and with music from the Reno Phil, mark your calendars for September 17th and 18th. Tickets go on sale July 25th. 

Steve Trounday is a board member at A.V.A. Ballet Theatre, the resident ballet company of the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts. The next production is Vortex, the Ballet That Rocks July 15th and 16th at the Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheater at Bartley Ranch.

More from Steve Trounday

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Local Dancer’s Rise to the Top by Steve Trounday — April 15, 2022

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Back on Stage with Beauty and the Beast by Steve Trounday — April 1, 2022


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This PBS Reno series delves into the local arts scene.