Dance Weekly: Portland Ballet’s ‘Day by Day’

Anne Mueller talks about the world premiere of her "Day by Day," among other things

By Jamuna Chiarini

This Thanksgiving weekend there is only one performance happening and it is a big one, The Portland Ballet will be performing the World Premiere of Anne Mueller’s Day by Day with John Clifford’s Firebird in collaboration with Portland State University’s Orchestra, conducted by music director Ken Selden at PSU’s Lincoln Hall.

Day by Day (World Premiere) and Firebird
The Portland Ballet with PSU Orchestra
November 27-29
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Avenue
Note: 100 tickets will be available at the door every night for $5.00

Anne Mueller photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Anne Mueller photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Anne Mueller danced with Oregon Ballet Theatre starting in 1996 and became Principal Dancer in 2007 when the ranks became established, dancing a variety of roles and choreographing. She retired 15 years later in 2011. Mueller was also a co-founder of the Trey McIntyre Project in 2005, working as a company artist and serving as the company’s founding Managing Director and Director of Outreach. After she retired from OBT, Mueller focused on teaching and artistic administrator with responsibilities including ballet mastering, tour management, and acting as Interim Artistic Director following Artistic Director Christopher Stowell’s departure. In 2013 she became the Managing Director of Bag&Baggage Productions in Hillsboro until her switch to her current position as Co-Artistic Director at The Portland Ballet this year.

Day by Day is about the comedy and drama of everyday life performed to Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major with a cast of 98 Portland Ballet students ranging from ages 7 years to 20. Mueller drew on her favorite childhood authors like Roger Hargreaves, Russell Hoban and Shel Silverstein for her visual inspiration and worked collaboratively with artist Morgan Walker of Augen Gallery to create the projected backdrops and costume designer Melissa Heller from Bag and Baggage Productions to make the costumes.

For Mueller the choreographic process for Day by Day really began in February 2014 when she began discussions with PSU Conductor Ken Selden about possible music choices.

On Monday I sat down with Mueller, the Co-Artistic Director of Portland Ballet, at her favorite coffee shop—Pip’s Original Doughnuts—and talked dance. Our conversation bounced around quite a bit touching on many different topics. Here is some of that conversation.

What was your process in developing Day by Day?

The music that he [Ken Selden] initially suggested felt a little mature for a piece for dancers as young as 8, 9, 10, 11: it was much more complex. I wanted something that both had easily understandable regularity to it but that would still be interesting to me and something I would be happy listening to for essentially year and a half and also have depth to it.

I happened upon the Mozart piece, and I felt I could arrange it into something that had a sense of an arc. I didn’t know how narrative the piece would end up being if at all, but I wanted it to have a satisfying arc. I felt like if I switched the placement of two of the movements it would.

What were your first inspirations for movement?

I was sitting in traffic listening to the second movement, the Menuetto, (Mueller sings a bar of the music as an example). It has a very stop and start feel to it, and I was like oh my god! So then I thought about it: “Oh, I can use the little kids and I can make them little cars. I can use them as cars. They have headlights and tail lights and a little steering wheel. And I have a traffic officer that conducts traffic.” So that was probably the first kernel of an idea. Then I just thought, everyday there is comedy and drama, and in those daily things we all encounter, there is a real universality to that idea. And I thought, “Yup, let’s go with that. Something I can work with.

When will the dancers start working with the orchestra?

Tuesday of this coming week. There are things we did to try and prepare the dancers. Ken, the conductor, was there for rehearsal on Saturday, so he got to see the piece through, and we got to talk and he knew which recording I was working with and he knows the tempo the dancers are used to and then I started using an alternate recording. We also have pitch adjustment software, so I was messing around with the pitch speeding up and slowing it down. Just so they have experienced it.

Anne Mueller and Portland Ballet student Medea Cullumbine Robertson. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

Anne Mueller and Portland Ballet student Medea Cullumbine Robertson. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

It has been interesting following the progression of your career from afar and seeing how your skills as a dancer and choreographer translate into other fields. I was especially intrigued when you went to Bag & Baggage, which wasn’t related to dance at all. How did you do that?

A part of my professional life that a lot people don’t know that much about is being a Founder of Trey McIntyre Project, I was founding managing director of TMP. I went through the process while I was dancing, I went through the process with two others of building an organization from nothing. I wasn’t unfamiliar with what the operations of a very small arts organization look like because I had started one. I dealt with development functions, foundation communications, financial management. I had dealt with all that stuff before. It wasn’t specifically from my experience at OBT. Those things weren’t as foreign to me as they might appear.

Where do you think the model of a dance company is going? What is your take on that?

If you look at Germany every community has their own dance company, if not more than one, and opera, and so I wondered if the United States might do well to move towards that model, where the major metropolitan cities aren’t the sole owners of arts institutions and it becomes a little bit more localized and hopefully with a local sense of ownership and pride.

What I saw at TMP once it settled in Boise was a tremendous level of excitement in the community for what was going on, huge emotional support, and enough financial support for things to be working. And so that just made me wonder is that the next way that things should be working here?

What did you glean from being on the panel for Marginal Evidence at The White Box?

That’s another huge difference between the way projects generally develop in the ballet world versus the contemporary dance world at least in my experience. I have always felt incredibly under the gun timewise: move fast, get it done, get it done, get it done. Really no time to indulge in any sort of lengthy process. It was fascinating to me to listen to a lot of people say that’s how their process works, they have a lot of in-depth note taking and all of this deep exploration. I was like wow, thats super different.

If you would like to hear the discussion between Curator Chris Moss, Anne Mueller, Linda K. Johnson, Linda Austin and Katherine Longstreth at The White Box gallery for Longstreth’s installation Marginal Evidence, click here.

Did that change anything for you? Would you try something different because of something you learned that night?

I would be curious to know what I would do with the luxury of time and whether that would result in a better outcome or not. It might not for me. If you just have to be instinctive and not overthink things, sometimes that can work really well. I was definitely noting that difference and thinking about it a little bit.

What are your future plans for Portland Ballet?

We just started this new program (the career track program), and right now I’m really concentrating on getting this program off successfully and really making a positive impact on these ten dancers that I am working with and giving them everything that I can to help set them up for success in their auditions, whether they are going on to a professional company or intensive college training programs. So that’s my main focus right now.

In a lot of ballet environments for a number of reasons, dancers who are trying to embark on a professional career don’t necessarily have a lot of supportive resources in terms of where should I go, or what should my resume look like and what should my audition video look like and what places are appropriate for me to have an expectation about. So that is a lot of what i’m trying to do with these dancers as well. Yes, training them in the studio, but also pointing them in the right direction, and helping them understand how you should function in a studio/rehearsal environment that’s going to help your relationship with your artistic director or other artistic staff. Because nobody tells you that stuff, either, you sort of figure it out via trial and error and just getting older and maturing. But why don’t people tell you that—it’s not rocket science, it’s not. You know, it’s important and it has a strong impact on how people’s careers play out.

What are the different hats that you wear?

Primary teacher for the career track, and Nancy (Davis) and I split the rehearsals to some degree: it depends on what the schedule is. I run much of the rehearsals for the career track; I do all the scheduling for the career track; I teach other levels in the school, though not that much at this point because the workload of everything else I am doing is fairly full. I have rehearsals with the youth company that are outside of the career track hours, though Nancy and I are working together. She has let me take the lead on programing, thinking up the ideas of which ballets we are doing and preliminary casting.

For this production I have been doing a bit of negotiating with the collaborating artists, doing contracts for choreographers whose work we are performing. This is something we are ironing but being a conduit of communicating between venue and stage manager and lighting designer and us in house. I participate in marketing decisions and planning. I think that’s mostly it.

What is coming up next for Portland Ballet?

For the spring show, we are doing Valse-Fantaisie, we are doing excerpts of a Trey McIntyre Ballet called Mercury Half-Life which is to the music of Queen. He choreographed it on his own company in the company’s final season, and it’s going to be performed by the Washington Ballet in the spring as well. I actually staged sections of it on the Washington ballet when I was there in October, and I worked with a couple other stagers to get it set. When I get to setting it on the dancers here it will be the third time that I’ve worked with the material, which is great because it’s in you at that point.

We are going to create our own version of the Raymonda Pas de Dix. Raymonda is a full length ballet that nobody really does, but it has a lot of wonderful variations in it and the music is lovely and it’s a nice classically based showcase piece, which are super handy because you can present a classically based work without needing extensive sets and costumes. So we’ll put together a version of the Pas de Dix probably using a corp de ballet of eight and one lead couple. We will go through the variations and pick four that we feel are the right fit for the dancers that we would like to feature. Gregg Bielemeier will do a new work. He will probably start on that in December or January, and Jason Davis, who’s on faculty here, will create a new work as well. Did I get everything? I’m pretty excited about it, it’s super well-rounded.

Next weekend is a really big one-save the date for Alice Gosti, Soledad Barrio, Suniti Dernovsek, 11: Dance Co, BodyVox Dance and Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre.

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