Children’s Ballet development

JANUARY 2020: The last few months have been very busy preparing the piano score for use in the creative development of my latest commission from WA Ballet, The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. This piece began creative development (choreography with the very talented WA Ballet young artists) on January 13, 2020, and had its company showing for creatives and sponsors on February 10. Prior to this, I began story development with the choreographer Andries Weidemann in early November. After this first session reading May Gibbs’ 1918 work The Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, which is the first set of stories from the collected edition The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (2007) we refined story elements and chose our characters, jotting notes and scribbles on a whiteboard and forming a rough storyboard arc. Storyboarding is a way to visually represent various scenes or story points sequentially on one or several pages or boards, most commonly associated with the planning of film or television programs. I find storyboarding to be an essential tool for analysis of other works as well as for the planning and drafting of my work, be it creative writing (libretto) or score-related (orchestration). At each juncture storyboard elements can be altered slightly in order to accommodate the elements of that specific creative task (story development, planning of musical scenes and elements, full orchestral realisation) but the basic design remains the same: a landscape-oriented table plotting scenes or events, often with a hand-drawn graph above indicating the natural rise and fall of dramatic tension in the piece. 

I took away this storyboard arc, and reframed it into a word document very similar to the one I used in my opera development. We then both edited and refined as ideas progressed using the Word review comments sections. 

Then we went away with our separate tasks. Whilst Andries worked on the narration, I began working on the piano score for use in the rehearsal period in January, firstly by developing several themes for characters and situations. This first score was to be for a piano, with percussion indications for cues and clarity. I work with the piano firstly as it is the generally accepted mode of musical rehearsal in both ballet and opera companies, and as it is also the best way for me to write broad sketches of a work, to formulate easily melodies and their basic harmonies, and in this fashion it also allows you to work more speedily than if you were bogged down in the task of orchestration. What’s wonderful about this layered approach is that it’s much easier to make changes quickly, and at the end of the whole process, you have a completed rehearsal score that can be used again for subsequent productions. 

Much along the lines of modern film music and Wagnerian leitmotif, I began developing a piano score by experimenting with lots of character themes and leitmotif devices.  Most of these themes were developed with Andries’s developing adapted text, and greatly inspired by May Gibbs’ wonderful drawings of characters and situations. You can see these all on my project board that was utilised in my study as I worked (Figure 2).

Once we had a more definite story arc and a developing narration, I began to piece the ballet score together with connecting music, using the narration as a kind of skeleton framework. Andries and I would then have a meeting where I played him what I had been working on, and I took copious notes on what he wanted changed or developed. This had been an ongoing process of edit and refine, even as we have been choregraphing, so the work is certainly still developing even today. 

My next task will be to begin orchestration of the work which will be for wind quintet: Flute (piccolo), Clarinet (and bass clarinet), Oboe, Bassoon and French Horn, as well as tuned and untuned percussion. Percussion is a very important aspect of this score which may not have been as evident in the MIDI playback rehearsal recording in the showing. The tuned percussion will include vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel, and the non­-tuned percussion will include temple blocks, castanets, guiro, bass drum, snare drum and triangle amongst others. Percussion has been identified not just by me, but by many other composers working in children’s repertoire to be especially effective in complementing the pace of works, adding dramatic effect and tension, and keeping the timbre of the overall score as varied and colourful as the original May Gibbs’ illustrations. I chose this instrumental combination due to the soloistic characteristics of the wind quintet, which allows for virtuosity and loads of characterisation through the differentiation between these instruments. 

I have also written a cheeky overture, March of the Gumnuts as I loved the way the 2019 Peter and the Wolf production opened with all cast on stage dancing to the Prokofiev March Opus 99, Allegro. This overture was one the dancers ran out of time to choregraph for our showing, but I’m looking forward to orchestrating it and its inclusion in the performance. 

I want to thank WA Ballet, Andries Weidemann and all the dancers for their support and hard work, and I look forward to sharing the completed work with you in the near future. 

Gibbs, M. (2007). The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie: Including Little Ragged Blossom and Little Obelia. Sydney: HarperCollins.

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