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Arts Toolkit

Arts Toolkit: Dance

Kentuckians in Dance

Conductor Jeff Holland Cook
Buffalo Grove, IL

Who Jeff Holland Cook is the Louisville Orchestra conductor for the Louisville Ballet. Before coming to Louisville, he was with the Mansfield (OH) Symphony Orchestra for 19 years and was music director of the Wheeling (WV) Symphony for 12 years. He has been associate conductor of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and has conducted for the San Francisco Ballet. Maestro Cook has also conducted for world-famous pops artists, including Sarah Vaughan, Carlos Montoya, and the Canadian Brass, and has been music director for musicals such as My Fair Lady and Oklahoma! He also has arranged music for orchestras and developed special programming for young people's concerts. Jeff plays the trombone.

What “As conductor, I am the connection between the orchestra and the dancers. I am not a dancer myself, and one of the things I've had to learn over the years is what dancers are thinking on stage. As a musician, I've always connected with singers and other musicians. You can anticipate what their problems are and what they need. Conducting dance was a new learning experience. Phrasing in dance is different from phrasing in music. It's a physical phrasing based on the choreography and the ability of the dancer. The musician's whole focus is on the music. I have to reproduce what the dancer has been used to from rehearsal. I have to provide the dancers with what they need and provide a musical accompaniment. My job is to put the music together quickly for the dancers.”

When/Where “Most of my work musically, for my preparation, is before I get to Louisville. I get a tape to learn the music and a video to learn what the dancing is. In Louisville, I spend four to five days watching rehearsal, learning the ballet and the concerns of the dancers and the ballet master. Then the orchestra comes in and meets with the dancers. That's the most difficult time for me, because we've read through the ballet once, and the dancers expect it's going to be as it's going to be in performance. We go through trial by fire. We rehearse the music as if it were a regular concert performance. Then when the dancers come in, we have to be flexible enough to adjust to the dancers.”

How “It takes different skills from what I would do as a regular conductor, in that the performance is already put together by the choreographer. Analysis and musical expression are not parts of the package until I'm trying to make it a musical performance. First comes the accompaniment for the dancers. It isn't something that is really taught somewhere. I've learned this in the course of working with dancers for the last 20 to 30 years. There is not a common language between dancers and musicians. Understanding what the dancer is doing—the ‘language'—took a long time. The biggest challenge is not having enough time. I do my best to anticipate all the problems and issues that might come up in the course of the performance, based on my experience. Another conductor once said [that] getting ready for a rehearsal is not running into any surprises.”

Why “I love the music of the ballet. Both Alun [Jones, former Louisville Ballet artistic director] and Bruce [Simpson, current Louisville Ballet artistic director] have programmed works that most symphony conductors don't get to do. My goal is to keep working. I've seen, over my career, fewer and fewer live performances. Every arts organization is struggling to keep an audience. If I were a young conductor coming up, that would be my main concern.”

Getting There “You have to be a trained musician. You have to learn the instruments, hear the scores, understand what it is to make a musical performance, and you take those skills into the area of ballet, and you start learning another art form all over again.”

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