That was the dictate from Artistic Director Iain Webb to the novice choreographers presenting original works in the Sarasota Ballet's final program of the season, "Theatre of Dreams."
Webb instituted the annual showcase for company members with choreographic aspirations three seasons ago; this year he added the musical mandate. Given that the budget precluded a full orchestra, that meant the five newbies had to fit their ideas to the music, rather than find music to fit an idea.
"The whole live music scenario kind of limited me," says Ricki Bertoni, who based his first work last season on a piece of abstract art and set it to an electronic score. "What I've done is pretty much the complete opposite of last year's."
Driven by their choices — from solo piano to string quartet — all but one chose to create abstract works without characters, narrative, sets or props. Only Logan Learned, staging his first original work, chose a character-driven approach.
During a brief break from putting on the final touches, we asked each dancemaker five questions about their work and what it's like to, as they put it, "stand at the front of the studio."
Ricki Bertoni, soloist
Last year's "Hip 2 be Square" was Bertoni's first piece for the company. He is from England.
What is the name of your piece and which music did you end up choosing?
"Ragtop." The music is Scott Joplin — "The Early Winners" and "Ragtime Dances." It's about 10 minutes long and has eight girls and five boys.
Where did you get the idea for it?
I've always been a huge fan of old movies and the Fosse style, the whole way dancers were back then. I'd been watching a lot of old movies over the summer and was inspired by some of the movement. So I've created kind of a crossover by bringing in more of the ballet, yet keeping that look. It's very black and white — apart from the girls' red lipstick.
What did you learn from your first piece last season?
Last year I had this solid idea in my head and tried to direct things rigidly, which didn't work. I was too fixated on certain parts and I forced too much. This time I was more relaxed and not so set. I hope to be thoughtful, but spontaneous at the same time. And I try to avoid the predictable.
Did you feel more confident this time around?
Not really. I still find it really nervewracking. The time constraint is the biggest thing. It puts me in sort of a panic and that's scariest for me.
Would you like to continue choreographing?
I hope so, if I'm at least naff at it. Naff? That's British, it means — I think — kind of all right, on the lower side of average. (Webb, a fellow Brit, comes in moments later and says it means "tacky.")
Jamie Carter, corphyée member
Carter, the most experienced of the group, has created four previous works, including last season's "Holiday Overture." He is from England.
What is the name of your piece and what was your musical choice?
It's called "Concordium" and the music is the String Quartet No. 5 by George Rochberg, an American composer. It's 24 minutes long, with four movements and it has 24 dancers — 13 women and 11 men.
Why did you chose this music?
If you're choreographing for an American company and an American audience, I think it's important to showcase American musical talent...I've always said I'd like to have been born in Louisiana. I never really felt I fit in as a dancer in England, I was very tall and I didn't have that Royal Ballet reserve. I had more energy. What I love about working with American dancers is they have a great attack.
What was the concept behind this work?
The concept is just the music really. It's purely abstract. It's very modern music, but very easy on the ear. I don't see the music as just the complement to the dance. I think it is a huge part and has equal status. I actually counted all the phrases and figured out what accents I wanted to highlight.
All the pieces you've choreographed so far have been abstract. Will you ever try something narrative?
I'm thinking about something, not a linear story, but something exploring character. It's incredibly difficult to do well and I haven't felt ready yet. That's what's nice about "Theatre of Dreams" though. We are encouraged to experiment. This is probably the best place to try something like that.
Would you like to choreograph full time some day?
I'd love to tour around making ballets here and there. I think I'm a bit of a gypsy...(laughs) from Baton Rouge. In America you have a lot of director/choreographers but that doesn't interest me at all. I can teach, coach, choreograph, dance, but I don't want to direct. No thank you.
Ricardo Graziano, principal
Graziano has choreographed two major works for the company, "Shostakovich Suite" and "Symphony of Sorrows," as well as an occasion piece, "Pomp and Circumstance" for this year's gala. He is from Brazil.
What is your piece called and what music did you choose?
It's called "Valsinhas," which means "little waltzes" in Portuguese. I chose 25 waltzes from Schubert's 34 "Valses Sentimentales," each of them less than a minute.
How many dancers are in the piece?
The idea was to create this just for five boys. But when I saw where the idea was going, I asked Iain about having a girls cast with the same choreography. So now we have two casts, one male, one female. I chose strong girls that are fierce and can do the boys' stuff, like double tours and jumps and tricks.
What is the concept?
My take on it is that I didn't want to have a story. I looked for piece with a piano and like this one. It's just human to listen to music and start dancing. So I decided to have the piano on the stage and the dancers would hear the music and look at the musician and just start dancing to it. That's pretty much what it is. Compared to "Symphony," which was so dramatic, this is more joyful, playful. Pretty much just go, dance, enjoy, have fun.
Each piece you've done has been very different. Is that intentional?
My whole idea is to challenge myself and I wanted to do something different again. I'm young, I'm still learning and I don't have a style. I just want to try things and see what happens. I'm playing while I can. And I don't want people to compare them and leave the theater thinking, "Oh, but last year's was so much better."
You seem to really enjoy choreographing. What attracts you to it?
I do love it, but it's a different love than loving dancing. It's the love of being in the front of the studio. It feels like an even bigger pressure because when you're choreographing, in a way all eyes are on you, even though you're not on the stage.
Kate Honea, principal
Honea has created two works for the company — "Percolator" and last year's "Headlines," which included video projections — and a number of pieces for Sarasota Ballet School students. She is a Sarasota native.
What is the name of your piece and the music?
It's called "Baroque and Blues," which is the first of the three tracks I'm using from Claude Bolling's Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano. It has 14 dancers — eight corps girls, four corps boys and one past de deux couple — and it's 13 minutes long.
What's the idea behind the movement?
The movement comes mostly from the concept of having live music. I made a basic decision not to have a story or theme or props like I have in the past. I wanted to get away from doing the narrative and do steps that everyone enjoys. Just to feature the music and show that I do love pure dance. It's very classical steps, but with more of a character flair because the music asks for that.
What was your process this time?
I didn't have to worry about this one making sense. If I liked how a step looked, I kept it.
What lessons have you learned about choreographing?
I think last year I was trying to do too much. To have a theme and projections and trying too hard to be clever. I ended up realizing something more simple can make more of a point.
Are you more confident as a choreographer now?
I have such respect for the choreographers I've worked with, like Dominic Walsh, who are so innovative, so inventive and whose movement qualities are so distinct. For me, that's very hard.
I'm better with simple themes, I enjoy getting a story across. I'm having so much fun choreographing "Aladdin" (for the Sarasota Ballet School year-end recital). I'm still looking for my niche.
Logan Learned, principal
Learned is a longtime fan favorite with Sarasota audiences, but this is his first choreography for the company. He is from California.
What is the name of your piece and its music?
It's called "Scene de Ballet," which is also the name of the music, by Charles Auguste de Beriot. It's for solo violin, accompanied by an orchestra or, in this case, a piano. It's just under 10 minutes long, has three sections, and there are seven dancers, three girls and four boys.
Why did you choose that music?
Finding a piece of music with just one or two instruments was hard. This one stood out because it's very diverse, but the composer had actual ballet music in mind, or at least his interpretation of it. To me it seems like very exaggerated ballet music. And because of that, I was interested to do a piece that is basically about dancers before a class, getting ready for their day — in an exaggerated, comedic way. Because the music is so definitive, it helped me figure out the characters, which helped me figure out the choreography.
Who are the characters?
Well, for example, in one section the music is really Spanish-inspired, fast and frantic. And the character is a dancer who is obsessed with those Spanish ballets like Don Q(uixote). Everyone understands her obsession; they're like "There she goes again...Kitri on crack." (Kitri is the female lead in "Don Quixote.") Another one is...when you go to a summer (ballet) program, there's always one guy who's checking himself out in the mirror, primping and flirting with the girls — and then all he does is sit around. And then there's a girl who just loves ballet and is so into it she's unaware of how irritating she can be. I call her "The Ditz."
What do you hope the audience comes away with?
I want it to feel like you are getting an inside glimpse of how it actually is, but in a dramatic and overblown way. Everyone sees the end result, the pristine perfection on the stage, but we're all normal, goofy people. I want them to feel this is a living world, as to opposed to "My, what a nice step he did!" or "Wasn't her foot so pointed!" It's more important they feel a connection with the dancer as a person.
And I'm hoping there are many laughs. That eggs the dancers on to be more hambones, which would be great.
And how do you feel about your choreographic debut?
I'm nervous. It's never easy putting yourself out there. But dancing is one thing. This is something completely different.
THEATRE OF DREAMS, final program of Sarasota Ballet season. With premieres by Ricki Bertoni, Jamie Carter, Ricardo Graziano, Kate Honea and Logan Learned. 8 p.m. May 3; 2 and 8 p.m. May 4; 2 and 7 p.m. May 5. Mertz Theatre, FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. $30-$90. 359-0099, ext. 101; www.sarasotaballet.org